SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The first government announcement Tuesday was startling: Salvage crews had found bones near the wreckage of the Sewol ferry, which sank in 2014 and killed 304 people.
The discovery raised hopes that the remains were of some of the nine people still missing. Such a find would bring a measure of closure in one of South Korea's deadliest maritime disasters.
But hours later, investigators from the National Forensic Service concluded that it was all a mistake. The bones were from unidentified animals, not human remains.
There was no immediate explanation from the government, which has been widely criticized over its handling of the disaster.
The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries had initially said salvage crews had found bones measuring 4 to 18 centimeters (1.5 to 7 inches) that were likely to be from one or more of the missing passengers, and that DNA tests would be used to verify the identities.
The discovery had triggered an angry reaction from relatives of the missing, criticizing the government's salvage operation as poorly organized and questioning whether other remains might have gotten lost while workers raised the sunken ferry last week. The ministry also said shoes and other items believed to be from the missing victims were found.
Workers had completed a massive operation to lift the corroding 6,800-ton Sewol from the sea.
The bones were found near a beam beneath the front side of the ferry, which had been loaded onto a heavy lift transport vessel that will carry it to port.
Rescue workers have 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.
Crews on the transport vessel have drilled dozens of holes in the ferry to try to empty it of water and fuel before it's ready to be brought to a port in Mokpo. Relatives had expressed concern that remains of the missing victims could slip out through the holes and get lost.
Earlier Tuesday, relatives of the missing passengers participated in an emotional memorial service on a boat near the transport vessel, with representatives of Catholic and Protestant churches and Buddhists delivering prayers for the recovery of the missing.
Relatives tossed yellow roses into the sea 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 girl, told a TV 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 Mokpo, investigators will spend about a month cleaning the vessel, searching for any remains of the victims and looking for clues to the cause of the sinking. The disaster has been blamed on overloaded cargo, improper storage and other negligence.