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Gov’t announces plans to salvage Sewol this week

Weather permitting, the task will begin Wednesday morning
Mar 21,2017
The government said Monday it may attempt to salvage the Sewol ferry, which sank on April 16, 2014, on the morning of Wednesday, depending on the weather conditions.

Vice Minister of Oceans and Fisheries Yoon Hag-bae held a press conference on Monday and discussed the plan to lift the 6,825-ton ferry that capsized off the southwestern Jin Island.

The Sewol was carrying 476 people, 304 of whom, mostly high school students on a field trip, died. Nine bodies are still unaccounted for and are believed to be inside the ship.

“We will check the weather forecast at 6 a.m. on Wednesday and then make an announcement,” Yoon said. “If the weather conditions permit, we can start lifting.”

The government selected Shanghai Salvage, a state-run Chinese company, through an international bidding process in July 2015 to recover the ship, which lies 44 meters (144 feet) below the surface. The initial stages of the salvage operation began on August 2014.

It was originally estimated that the salvage would be completed within a year, but operations were delayed. After one and half years, the ministry finally said Sunday that the necessary checks and repairs to the marine salvage equipment were complete.

The government said the lifting requires a period of three days with waves lower than 1.5 meters. The March neap tide, when the difference between high and low tides is at a minimum, ends on Friday.

“According to the forecast, the wave height will be a little higher than 1 meter on Wednesday and Thursday,” Yoon said.

The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said the ship will be raised above the water after six to eight hours.

During the press conference on Monday, Yoon tried not to fuel optimism because the ministry’s announcement on Saturday about its plans, and subsequent cancellation, had already stirred up criticism. When asked if the possibility is high that the Sewol will be lifted on Wednesday, Yoon said, “I have to respond with caution.”

The ministry said Saturday that it would not rule out the possibility that an attempt will be made to lift the ship on Sunday. Three hours later, it recanted the plan, citing weather conditions.

The salvage operation will use a method known as “tandem lifting” to raise the Sewol. Originally, the ship was planned to be raised using a giant maritime crane, but the method was changed in November due to strong winds.

Two large jacking barges will be used to pull wires attached to the Sewol. Once raised, the Sewol will be placed on a semi-submersible ship and then taken to Mokpo, South Jeolla, about 87 kilometers (54 miles) away. Ministry officials warned that the operation will be challenging, as balance is key, and they do not know the exact location of dispersed cargo inside the Sewol.

The government still vowed to complete the operation before April 16, the third anniversary of the tragedy. After the neap tide ends this month, the next window of opportunity takes place on April 5.

After lifting, the Sewol will be taken to Mokpo New Port. Afterwards, Yoon said, a search will take place for the missing bodies possibly trapped inside the ship.

Even after the ship is raised, a controversy is expected to continue over the delayed salvage operation. In an interview with CBS radio on Monday, Kong Gil-young, a professor at the Korea Maritime and Ocean University, said, “The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries must explain why it took more than two years.”

The conspicuous timing of the ministry’s announcement on the lifting has also fueled speculation. The announcement was made five hours after the Constitutional Court ruled on March 10 to terminate Park Geun-hye’s presidency. “A series of suspicious incidents took place one after another, enough to fuel a conspiracy,” he said.

Kong also said the government must explain suspicions linked to its decision to hire Shanghai Salvage, which lacks expertise in such a complex lifting operation. “Because the hull was largely damaged during the operations,” he said, “suspicions are growing about the government’s attempt to conceal something about this accident.”

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]