The 6,800-ton Sewol ferry fully emerged from the water on Saturday showing its entire hull nearly a day after being loaded onto a semisubmersible transport vessel before later heading to shore, the South Korean government said.
"The semisubmersible ship buoyed up to lift the entire Sewol ferry off the surface of the water as of 9:15 p.m.," the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said through a text message sent to reporters.
Salvage crews were stepping up work to drain water and oil from the ferry, which is expected to arrive at the port of Mokpo, about 90 kilometers away, as early as next Wednesday.
The ministry said that it will take three to five days to complete preparations including the drainage work.
It said a search for the bodies of nine missing passengers expected to still be inside the wreck will begin when the ship arrives.
Early Saturday, the Sewol was completely separated from the barges, which hoisted the ferry from the deep water during the first stage, after being placed on the deck of the transport vessel.
It took four days for the operators to lift the ship lying about 40 meters under water and move it to the semisubmersible transport vessel since it began the lifting in earnest on Wednesday. The project was on a tight schedule as it had to be carried out during the neap tide period which ended Friday midnight.
A total of 304 people, most of whom were high school students on a school trip, died when the ferry sank on April 16, 2014, with investigators concluding that the sinking was a man-made disaster. Nine bodies are still unaccounted for.
In 2015, in order to protect any remains of people still missing from the tragic sinking and conduct a detailed investigation into the disaster, the South Korean government decided to pull the ferry out of the water intact.
The 85.1 billion won (US$72 million) project went to a Chinese consortium led by state-run Shanghai Salvage.
After the ferry safely leaves the accident site, known for its fast current, divers will search carefully for any remains left in the water and on the sea floor, according to the officials. Authorities said underwater fences surrounding the area where the Sewol sank have been set up. (Yonhap)