Salvage operation under way for South Korea’s sunken Sewol ferry as bereaved families wait for closure

Chinese salvage company prepares to raise ferry, which sunk almost three years ago, killing 304 people

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 March, 2017, 4:46pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 March, 2017, 10:37pm

Salvage operators began raising South Korea’s sunken Sewol ferry on Wednesday, officials said, nearly three years after the disaster killed more than 300 people and dealt a crippling blow to now-ousted president Park Geun-Hye.

Emotional parents of victims – the vast majority of the dead in the country’s worst ever maritime disaster were schoolchildren – urged people to pray for a successful recovery.

I am a mother who just really misses her daughter. Please pray for us
Lee Keum-hui, bereaved mother

The vessel was lying more than 40 metres below the waves off southwestern South Korea and the operation, originally scheduled for last year, has been pushed back several times because of adverse weather.

It is thought nine bodies still unaccounted for may be trapped inside the sunken ship, and raising the ferry intact has been a key demand of the victims’ families.

“I am a mother who just really misses her daughter. Please pray for us so we can go home with Eun-Hwa,” said Lee Keum-hui, one of a handful of relatives who have been living in makeshift homes at Paengmok, the closest port to the wreck, since the accident. “We will be grateful if you pray with us so that the last remaining victims can return to their families.”

Other bereaved family members have been maintaining a vigil at a camp on a hilltop on Donggeochado, the nearest island to the site, just 1.5km away.

Yellow ribbons – a symbol for the victims of the deadly disaster – hang on nearby trees, their colour faded by the course of time. In a tense atmosphere, one victim’s father nervously watched through binoculars, trying to get a glimpse of the operation.

“We will not clear the camp even when the Sewol is raised,” he said, declining to be named. “You never know what you will find beneath the sunken ferry.”

Some 50 bereaved family members were watching the proceedings out at sea, he added.

Two enormous barges were positioned on either side of the 6,825-tonne ship and air bags inserted for the salvage effort, which is being led by Shanghai Salvage, a Chinese state-run consortium contracted for 85.1 billion won (US$73 million).

We will not clear the camp even when the Sewol is raised. You never know what you will find beneath the sunken ferry
Bereaved father

Beams were installed by digging through the seabed underneath the wreck, which was lying on its side, and cables attached to bring it painstakingly towards the surface.

Once two-thirds of it is exposed, a semi-submersible will be positioned underneath to raise it out of the water and transport it to the port of Mokpo to carry out investigations and search for the missing.

A senior official from the maritime ministry said it took three hours to raise the wreck one metre off the seabed in what was initially a feasibility test. The ministry then decided to go ahead with the full lifting, it said in a statement. The operation is expected to take three days.

The disaster and its aftermath gripped South Korea and overshadowed the presidency of Park, who stayed at her residence for seven hours in the crucial initial phase of the sinking. She has never specified what she was doing, sparking wild rumours including a tryst and a cosmetic surgery.

A permanent Sewol protest site targeting her was subsequently set up in the centre of Seoul, with effigies of the head of state on display alongside pictures of dead schoolchildren.

Negligence over the sinking was one of the grounds for which parliament impeached Park in December, although the constitutional court ruled that it was not an impeachable offence when it upheld her dismissal on other charges earlier this month.

Donggeochado island has a population of about 300 but the once-a-day ferry to it was packed with reporters on Wednesday and at least one outside broadcast truck.

South Korean protesters demand President Park’s immediate removal, Sewol ferry salvage

Investigations into the disaster concluded it 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.

Captain Lee Jun-seok was sentenced to life in prison for “murder through wilful negligence” and 14 other crew members given terms ranging from two to 12 years.