Sewol ferry raised to the surface after three years
As of 2 p.m. Thursday, the ferry was lifted 6 meters above the surface of the water off the southwestern Jindo, an island in South Jeolla.
The salvaging process, which has been ongoing since Wednesday morning, slowed on Thursday morning when the vessel shifted while being pulled out of the water and came into contact with the side of one of the jacking barges.
“The ferry shifted a little as it was being pulled up and is pulling on some wires,” said Lee Cheol-jo, head of the Sewol salvaging committee of the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, in a press conference at the Jindo County Office. “We are working on minimizing the contact between the wires and the ferry.”
The ferry has been pulled up by the ministry and Shanghai Salvage, a state-run Chinese company, using a “tandem lifting” method, whereby two large jacking barges are pulling wires connected to 33 beams that were inserted under the Sewol when it was lying on its port side, 44 meters below the surface.
As of 5 p.m. Thursday, the part of the ferry visible above water measured some 8.5 meters high.
Once the ferry is 13 meters out of the water, it will be placed on a semi-submersible ship to be taken to Mokpo, South Jeolla, about 87 kilometers (54 miles) away from the site to be inspected.
The semi-submersible ship will be ready 1.7 kilometer from the salvaging site, and the Sewol, still attached to the barges, will have to be slowly towed by ships toward the semi-submersible ship because the current at the salvaging site would be too strong for the delicate process of placing the ferry on the semi-submersible ship.
Workers will at this point have to disconnect the ferry from the 66 wires and 33 beams carrying it and fasten it to the semi-submersible ship. The process may take some three to four days, the ministry said.
“The process from the moment that the Sewol is 13 meters above the water’s surface to its being transported to the Mokpo New Port may take some 12 to 13 days,” Lee said. “As of now we hope to have the Sewol readily attached on the semi-submersible ship by Friday.”
Given the ministry’s explanation and granted that weather conditions remain favorable and the salvaging and transportation process proceed smoothly, the Sewol may reach land around April 4 or 5.
The 6,825-ton ferry capsized off Jindo in 2014. It 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. Investigations into why the ship sank and searching for the nine missing bodies will commence when the ferry reaches the port.
“The ferry had been underwater for more than 1,000 days, but given that there have been no man-made damages to the ship, I think it possible that the ship will be able to tell tales of why it had capsized,” said Park Chi-mo, professor at Ulsan University.
“As there were conjectures that the hull of the ship was the first to be damaged by an external force, the hull will have to be investigated thoroughly.”
There was also a theory that the ferry may have capsized when it was steered too quickly to one side and couldn’t recover its balance because the cargoes inside the vessel, reportedly not fastened, slumped to one side.
The ministry said that it will not be barring the investigation scene from the public’s view. The investigation will be steered by an eight-member committee, whose members will be elected by the National Assembly and relatives of the victims.
The committee will have a six-month operation period from its commencement.
The Sewol ferry broke through the surface of the water for the first time in nearly three years on the early morning hours of Thursday.
The starboard side of the ferry that broke the surface showed clear signs that it had been under water for 1,073 days. Severely corroded and damaged, the ferry no longer carried its name “Sewol” on its surface.
Relatives of the victims, who watched the salvaging process on television in temporary lodgings on Jin Island and on a vessel provided by the government a few kilometers from the site, broke down at the sight of the ferry.
“We were so happy to see the Sewol finally coming out of the water, but the sight of the ferry broke us,” said Lee Keum-hee, mother of Cho Eun-hwa, a student and passenger of Sewol whose body is still missing. “We have to find the nine missing bodies and determine why the ship sank in order to not repeat a disaster like this ever again.”
BY LEE SEUNG-HO, PARK JIN-SEOK and ESTHER CHUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]