SEOUL, South Korea >> South Korean salvage crews on Tuesday found what was presumed to be the remains of one or more of the missing victims of a 2014 ferry disaster that killed 304 people, an official said.
Salvage crews found six bones near a beam beneath the front side of the ferry, which was raised from the sea last week and loaded onto a heavy lift transport vessel that will carry it to port, said Lee Cheoljo, an official from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the bones, measuring from 4 to 18 centimeters (1.5 to 7 inches), belonged to one person or multiple people, said Lee, adding that DNA tests to identify the victims would take at least two to three weeks. Crews have also found shoes and other items that were presumed to have belonged to victims.
“It’s presumed that the bones came out with the mud that spilled out from the ship’s front,” Lee said.
He said crews suspended operations to empty the ferry of fuel and water after the bones were discovered at around 11:25 a.m.
Crews on the transport vessel have drilled dozens of holes in the ferry in an effort to empty it of water and fuel before it’s ready to be transported to a port in the city of Mokpo. Relatives had earlier expressed concerns that remains of the missing victims could slip out through the holes and get lost.
Rescue workers had recovered the bodies of 295 people — most of them students on a high school trip — before the government ended underwater searches in November 2014, seven months after the ship sank. Nine of the ferry’s passengers had remained missing.
Earlier Tuesday, the relatives of the missing passengers participated in an emotional memorial service on a boat near the transport vessel holding the ferry, where representatives of Catholic and Protestant churches and Buddhists delivered prayers wishing for the remains of the nine to be recovered.
Relatives threw into the sea yellow roses, a color that has become the symbol of their suffering, and watched from afar as crews on the transport vessel continued to empty the ferry of water and fuel.
“The ship has come up, but not the nine people inside it,” Lee Geum-hee, the mother of a missing schoolgirl, told a television crew. “Please don’t forget there are people inside the dirty, rusty and smelly wreckage. … Please do the best and let us bring them back home.”
Once the ferry reaches a port in the city of Mokpo, investigators will spend about a month cleaning it and evaluating it for safety. They will then begin to search the vessel for the remains of the victims and look for clues that could further illuminate the cause of the sinking, which has been blamed on overloaded cargo, improper storage and other negligence.