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Sewol ferry towed toward semi-submersible ship

Ship lifted 43 feet out of water; process may be done by early April
Mar 25,2017
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On the sea off Jindo, an island in South Jeolla, five towboats on Friday tow the two jacking barges holding the Sewol ferry toward the semi-submersible ship onto which the ferry will be transported. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]
The Sewol ferry was hoisted 13 meters (43 feet) out of the water Friday and towed toward a semi-submersible ship waiting nearby, bringing it one step closer to reaching land for a thorough investigation into the country’s worst maritime disaster.

The ferry’s upper hull reached its target height at 11:10 a.m., two days after lifting operations began Wednesday. Wired to two jacking barges, one on each side, workers on the salvage team began moving it towards a semi-submersible ship three kilometers away at 4:55 p.m., with the expectation of arriving two hours later. Five tow boats were mobilized to lead the ferry and barges. The process of shifting the ferry onto the ship had not begun as of press time Friday.

Maritime officials said earlier Friday they would have to haul Sewol on top of the semi-submersible by midnight, when the neap tide period, when the tide’s range is at its minimum, was expected to end. The next neap tide will not start until early April, authorities said.

After Sewol is placed onto the ship, workers will have to disconnect the ferry from the wires and beams carrying it and fasten it to the semi-submersible ship, a process that will take about three days.

The ship will then be taken 87 kilometers to a port in Mokpo, South Jeolla, and hauled onto a dry dock, which requires around five more days.

If weather conditions remain favorable and the transportation process proceeds smoothly, the Sewol will be on land by the first week of April, nearly three years after it sank on April 16, 2014.

Yoon Hag-bae, vice minister of oceans and fisheries, said Friday that the ferry might have to be partially cut off in order to check whether any of the nine unrecovered bodies are inside.

Investigations on the ferry will be held on a specially-designated site near the New Port in Mokpo, which is 33,000 square meters (8.2 acres) large and surrounded by scores of shipping containers, said the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries.

The containers will be used by investigators and families of the victims who died in the accident.

A Sewol salvaging committee in the Oceans Ministry and a state-run Chinese company, Shanghai Salvage, are jointly working on the rescue project.

The raising of Sewol to 13 meters above sea water had been delayed for a day because workers had to clear off a ramp on the left side of the ferry, which was dangling in the water and impeding salvaging operations.

This step was finished at 6:45 a.m. Friday, leaving several holes in the ferry. Lee Cheol-jo, chief of the Sewol salvaging committee, said there was no chance missing bodies might slip through, saying that the area had been used for cargo.

The 6,825-ton ferry, a 20-year-old second-hand ship from Japan, was heavily overloaded with cargo and presumed to be top-heavy when it left Incheon for Jeju Island on the night of April 15, 2014.

On board were 33 crew and 476 passengers, including 325 students from Danwon High School in Ansan, Gyeonggi, on their traditional junior year field trip.

The following morning at around 8:48 a.m., shortly after breakfast, the ferry veered too fast. The crew broadcast warnings alerting passengers to stay below deck.

The captain and 14 crew scurried off the Sewol to safety. The Coast Guard arrived at the scene but did little to rescue the passengers stuck inside, as the ship turned turtle.

Only 172 people survived. A total of 295 people were confirmed dead. The bodies of nine are still missing, as their families still hold on to the last shimmer of hope that their remains - any part of them - will come home at last once the ferry arrives in Mokpo. Among the nine are four students and two teachers from Danwon High School, a 51-year-old woman, and a father and son.

Captain Lee Jun-seok was convicted of deserting the Sewol and is now serving a lifelong sentence. The 14 other crew members were slapped with jail terms ranging from 18 months to 12 years for negligence of duty.

Litigation surrounding the case is far from over. At the Seoul Central District Court, a lawsuit filed by a group of surviving families against the ferry’s operator, Cheonghaejin Marine Company, and the state to seek compensation is still ongoing.

So are other trials from the owners of the freight trucks on the ferry, who filed compensation suits against the government. The government sued Cheonghaejin Marine and its owner family to redeem the expenses that it spent to respond to the sinking.

Yoo Byung-eun, de facto owner of Sewol and its operator, was found dead in July 2014 after a massive manhunt.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]