Seoul announces plans to retrieve sunken ferry

April 22, 2015
South Korean Public Safety and Security Minister Park In-yong, right, speaks during a press conference as Oceans and Fisheries Minister Minister Yoo Ki-june listens at the government complex in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, April 22, 2015. South Korea on Wednesday formally approved plans to salvage the ferry Sewol that sank last year, meeting demands made by bereaved families wanting details about the cause of the sinking and the recovery of bodies of nine people still missing. The disaster killed more than 300 people, mostly high school students on a trip to a resort island. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

South Korean Public Safety and Security Minister Park In-yong, right, speaks during a press conference as Oceans and Fisheries Minister Minister Yoo Ki-june listens at the government complex in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, April 22, 2015. South Korea on Wednesday formally approved plans to salvage the ferry Sewol that sank last year, meeting demands made by bereaved families wanting details about the cause of the sinking and the recovery of bodies of nine people still missing. The disaster killed more than 300 people, mostly high school students on a trip to a resort island. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

SEOUL (Yonhap) — South Korea announced plans Wednesday to salvage the ferry that sunk off the country’s southwest coast a year earlier, claiming 304 lives.

The retrieval will likely begin in September and take up to 18 months, the Ministry of Public Safety and Security said after a meeting of the relevant government agencies.

After making a sharp turn, the 6,825-ton ferry Sewol capsized off Jindo Island on April 16 last year en route to the southern resort island of Jeju from Incheon, west of Seoul.

Most of the victims were teenage students on a field trip, with nine bodies still missing.

President Park Geun-hye Thursday vowed to raise the sunken ferry as soon as possible and to take all measures to recover the bodies of the victims who remain missing.

Some of the families of the victims, however, insisted that the government immediately come up with plans for the salvage of the wreckage.

Thousands of demonstrators staged a violent rally at Seoul Plaza in front of Seoul City Hall Saturday after a ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the Sewol sinking, leaving scores of police officers injured. Police rounded up more than 100 violent demonstrators.

In a news conference, Public Safety Minister Park In-yong said priority will be given to preventing the loss of the bodies of the nine people still missing and minimizing any possible damage to the hull.

As the bodies of the missing people are believed to be inside the hull, the vessel will be lifted from the sea bottom without changing its current position, according to the ministry.

The main part of the recovery will involve divers drilling scores of holes into the hull that’s lying on its left side and chaining it to two cranes that will pull the vessel out of the sea, the ministry noted.

About 100 divers will likely be employed for the underwater work, according to experts.

Up to 150 billion won, or about $139 million, will likely be required for the recovery, although the cost could increase further if the project is delayed or any unexpected technical issues arise.

Still, the retrieval also has safety risks and uncertainties, including the possible destruction of the 20-year-old vessel, typhoons in the summer and a strong current in the shipwreck’s location, Park said.

“The government will spend its utmost efforts to salvage the ferry Sewol successfully through the related bodies’ full preparations for the work,” Park said.

Oceans Minister Yoo Ki-june said his ministry will lead the salvage project, adding it will start the process soon by selecting salvage firms from home and abroad before coming up with a comprehensive salvage scheme.

“The retrieval will be carried out with our full efforts and in a way that does not create collateral safety accidents,” Yoo said, pledging the government will endeavor to help the victims and their bereaved families.

South Korea may fall short of procuring all the necessary equipment and professionals needed from inside the country, raising the prospects of foreign salvage firms joining the project.

Weighed down by tidal currents and mud, the 6,825-ton hull is estimated to be as heavy as 8,400 tons underwater and 10,200 tons when lifted above the surface of the sea, according to experts.

Five foreign salvage operators, including the Netherlands firm SMIT Salvage and Titan Salvage from the U.S., as well as two local players, may join the oceans ministry’s bid to select salvage firms in charge of the recovery work. The seven firms previously filed for the government’s interim bid for the task.

The bereaved families welcomed the decision on the salvage of the ship.

They had long called for a speedy retrieval of the hull in hopes to find the bodies of those who are still missing.

“We welcome the official announcement of the recovery plans,” said Yoo Kyung-keun, the spokesman for the families’ group. “We also call on the government to carry them out transparently in close communications with the families.”

The announcement was also hailed by ruling and opposition parties with the ruling Saenuri Party saying, “It is welcome news.”

“We call for the government’s utmost efforts to prepare fully for the retrieval and prevent collateral damage,” party spokeswomen Kwon Eun-hee said.

Seo Young-kyo, spokeswoman for the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, said, “It’s a belated decision that came one year after the tragedy, but, still, it is a relief.”

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