JINDO-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - MARCH 23:  In this handout photo released by Korea Coast Guard, a submersible vessel attempts to salvage sunken Sewol ferry in waters off Jindo, on March 22, 2017 in Jindo-gun, South Korea. The Sewol sank off the Jindo Island in April 2014 leaving more than 300 people dead and nine of them still remain missing.  (Photo by Korea Coast Guard via Getty Images)
Sewol ferry lifted from water
00:52 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

NEW: Parents of the victims share their grief as vessel returns to surface

The Sewol ferry sank on April 16, 2014, killing 304 people on board

Efforts to raise it have been underway ever since, amid frequent delays

CNN  — 

Three years after they watched in horror as a passenger ferry carrying their children sank off the coast of South Korea, parents of the victims watched the vessel return to the surface Thursday.

“I feel so sorry for my child, thinking how he suffered, I wasn’t there to offer him anything,” Lim Young-jae, who lost his son in the Sewol ferry disaster, told CNN.

The Sewol sank on April 16, 2014, killing 304 people – mostly teens on a school trip. Nine bodies are still missing; it is hoped they will be recovered once the vessel is out of the water.

One of the first images of the Sewol ferry as it emerges after three years underwater.

Jang Dong-won voiced the frustration many of the victims’ parents feel that the salvage operations have taken this long.

“It’s the first time in three years I’ve seen the ferry with my naked eye, and it’s hard to understand why we couldn’t lift it before,” he said.

“The priority is to find the missing bodies and do the least damage to the ship so we can find the truth and the reason it sank.”

The vessel was carefully winched from the seabed and loaded on barges for the return journey to shore.

Marathon operation

Engineers worked overnight to lift the 140-meter vessel several feet out of the water Thursday morning. Great care was taken to ensure it did not break apart.

Speaking Thursday, Lee Cheol-jo, head of the Sewol salvaging committee, said that 450 people were working on the vessel, including 50 divers.

Nine bodies are believed to be still on the ferry, some of the 304 people, mostly students, who died.

They are attempting to stabilize and secure the ship so it can be lifted 13 meters (42 feet) out of the water, after which it will be attached to a barge and towed to land.

Lee said the Sewol is expected to be returned to Shin Port in nearby Mokpo city around April 4, weather conditions depending.

The view from Donggeochado island shows the ongoing operation to salvage the Sewol.

For many of the families of the victims, the wait for answers has been agonizing.

“My son was the 220th body to be found, after 16 days,” said Shin Chang-sik. “I can’t imagine how the children were shouting and calling for their mother and father on the ship, I feel sorry for him and at the same time I am sorry (I couldn’t be there).”

Shin said the disaster “feels like yesterday.”

“My days stopped on April 16, 2014. I would do anything to turn the clock back to April 15th,” he said.

National trauma

An investigation into the Sewol’s sinking found evidence of negligence by the coast guard, and in the actions of the crew and captain on the day.

Survivors said the passengers were told by the Sewol’s officers to stay put as the vessel sank.

And video emerged of Captain Lee Joon-seok, dressed only in his underwear, leaping into the arms of the Korean Coast Guard as hundreds remained trapped on the vessel. He was later convicted of murder.

Recovery vessels worked through the night to raise the Sewol ferry off the southwest coast of South Korea.

Family groups and opposition politicians have long called for the Sewol’s recovery and a full investigation into its sinking.

The incident was a black mark on the presidency of Park Geun-hye, who appeared to be absent during the unfolding disaster, not addressing the nation until seven hours after the ferry began taking on water.

However, Park’s impeachment this month for abuse of power was a bittersweet moment for many Sewol families, as the former President’s handling of the incident was not considered a factor by the court in her impeachment.

CNN’s Taehoon Lee contributed reporting.