South Korea's sunken Sewol ferry has been successfully hauled onto a giant heavy lifting ship, officials said Saturday, a step towards returning the vessel to port.
Nearly three years after it went down killing more than 300 people, the wreck was safely placed onto a semi-submersible ship that will finally bring it to shore.
Almost all the victims were schoolchildren and it is thought that nine bodies still unaccounted for may be trapped inside.
"The vessel was successfully loaded onto the semi-submersible as of 4:10 a.m. (1910 GMT)," completing one of the most delicate stages of the salvage operation, said Lee Cheol-Jo, a Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries official in charge of the salvage.
The 145-metre ship was brought to the surface in a complex salvage operation believed to be among the largest recoveries ever of a wreck in one piece.
After being pulled up to the surface by wires lowered from two large barges, a flotilla of powerful tugs towed the wreck towards the semi-submersible.
It was placed over the deck of the semi-submersible, which will then rise throughout the day to expose the hull of the Sewol completely.
"It will take three to five days to prepare the Sewol to be towed to Mokpo", a large port on the southern coast, some 87 kilometers (54 miles), Lee said.
Once secured on the vessel, it will take a day to reach port.
The Sewol is likely to be docked at Mokpo early April, where the wreck will be searched for bodies.
After the ferry safely leaves the accident site, the ministry said divers will search the waters and seabed for any remains.
Underwater fences have been installed surrounding the area where the Sewol sank.
The salvage came as the third anniversary approached of one of the country's worst-ever maritime disasters, which dealt a crushing blow to now-ousted president Park Geun-Hye.
Investigations concluded the disaster was largely man-made -- the cumulative result of an illegal redesign, an overloaded cargo bay, inexperienced crew and a questionable relationship between the ship operators and state regulators.
Several relatives of the dead on Friday watched the much-anticipated operation unfolding from a boat near the site.