(Reuters)

The Sewol ferry, which sank off the coast of South Korea almost three years ago, claiming 304 lives, emerged from the water Thursday as a huge salvage operation got underway.

The sight of the ferry’s hull reopened deep wounds in South Korea, where many people are still struggling to come to terms with the disaster. The vast majority of the victims were high school students on a field trip to the southern resort island of Jeju, and even as the dangerously overloaded ferry began to list, they were told to stay put. Nine bodies were never recovered, and the families hope they will be found in the ferry once it is out of the water.

The mismanagement of the rescue operation sparked intense criticism of then-President Park Geun-hye, whose whereabouts were unknown for seven hours on the day of the disaster. This contributed to the public dissatisfaction that led to Park being impeached this month.

“Part of the Sewol’s structure, which is believed to be its stabilizer, was seen above the water with naked eyes,” an official with the Oceans and Fisheries Ministry told reporters Thursday after two barges lifted the ship in the early morning hours.

Technical difficulties had prevented authorities from raising the 6,825-ton ship, which had been lying on its side at a depth of about 130 feet near the island of Jindo, off the southwest coast.

A relative of a missing passenger from the sunken ferry Sewol watches as the vessel is raised to the surface. (Reuters)

But after preparations that included installing flotation devices in the ferry, authorities deemed the weather calm enough to test lifting the hull. Two barges pulled up wires attached to 33 beams that had been laid underneath the Sewol.

They lifted it about six feet from the sea floor on Wednesday and, with that test going well, decided to proceed with raising the ferry to the surface early Thursday.

By 6 p.m. local time, about 18 feet of the ship’s hull had emerged from the water, and workers in red coveralls were able to walk on it to assess its state. The hull was corroded and the word “Sewol” was no longer visible on its side.

The ferry needs to be 40 feet out of the water before it can be moved onto a partly submerged ship to be taken to port.

The whole operation, which is being led by China’s state-run Shanghai Salvage and is estimated to cost $72 million, is expected to take eight days. It will take four more days to move the ferry onto a dry dock.

The disaster sent South Korea into a period of intense mourning, and the pain is still visible. In central Seoul, an encampment that serves as a memorial to the victims still stands in a central plaza, and some protesters at rallies against Park over the past six months wore yellow ribbons, symbols of the disaster.

The ferry was carrying 476 passengers from Incheon, west of Seoul, to Jeju on April 16, 2014, when it made a sharp turn in bad weather. It had more than double the amount of allowed cargo, much of which was not properly secured.

It listed for more than an hour before it capsized, but the operators of the ship told passengers to stay where they were. Chilling videos sent by teenagers on board show them laughing as the ship began to tip, apparently unaware of the peril they were in.

Only 172 people were rescued before the ferry went down. Of the remaining passengers, 295 bodies were recovered — the vast majority of them students from Danwon High School in Ansan, outside Seoul — but the remains of nine people have never been found.

“We were so happy to see the Sewol finally coming out of the water, but the sight of the ferry broke us,” said Lee Keum-hee, whose daughter Cho Eun-hwa was one of the students on the ship and whose body was never found. “We have to find the nine missing bodies and determine why the ship sank in order to not repeat a disaster like this ever again,” she told reporters on Jindo as they waited for news from the salvage operation, according to the Joongang Ilbo newspaper.

People gathered at memorials in Ansan on Thursday to pray for the recovery of the missing.

“Three years have passed. I cannot imagine what the families have gone through,” Song Cheol-sub, a 59-year-old visiting a memorial, told the Korea Herald. “I wish the causes of the ferry sinking will come out to the surface as well.”

The ferry captain, Lee Joon-seok, abandoned the ship while it was sinking. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Fourteen other crew members were jailed for two to 12 years for their role in the disaster.

The disaster also caused huge political damage to Park, who was impeached this month on charges of corruption and leaking confidential information and is now subject to prosecution. She strongly denies any wrongdoing.