Riskiest Step in Sewol Salvage Completed

Shanghai Salvage's floating shearlegs (courtesy TMC Marine)

Published Aug 1, 2016 9:18 PM by The Maritime Executive

The ferry Sewol, which went down in 2014 with the loss of more than 300 lives, came one step closer to returning to the surface on Friday when salvors briefly lifted her bow, the most difficult and risky step in the salvage plan. 

Oceans and Fisheries Minister Kim Young-suk said that a team from Shanghai Salvage raised the bow by five degrees to install nearly 20 steel lifting beams underneath. Next, they will repeat the process at the stern; once all beams are in place, the salvors plan to lift the vessel whole using a combination of air bags, the buoyancy of the ship’s own pumped-out ballast tanks, and vertical lift from a floating shearlegs. The attempt at a whole-ship recovery in over 120 feet of turbulent water may be without precedent, said a naval architect involved with the salvage; he gave the operation an 80 percent chance of success.

The operation has been delayed multiple times due to adverse weather. It was originally scheduled for the beginning of May, but poor underwater visibility, difficult currents and wave action on the surface have slowed the effort. 

An earlier attempt resulted in damage to the wreck: several underwater lifting wires cut into the bow of the Sewol due to rough conditions at the surface (she was being lifted by a floating shearlegs, which was subject to wave action). "We are changing our plan to deter further damage," said Kim Hyun-tae, a senior official, speaking at a press briefing. He described the salvage as a "work against nature, as it is being staged in an area known for its strong currents."

Separately, the government committee to investigate the sinking of the Sewol was disbanded on June 30, much to the dismay of victims’ families and activists. 

A group of families and religious organizations held a press conference in early July protesting the dissolution of the committee and the delays in raising the vessel. "Lifting of the ferry Sewol is a national task that victims’ families and Koreans have wished to complete," the group said. 

The tragedy has taken on national significance, and investigators found many parties to be complicit in the loss of the vessel and the hundreds of passengers aboard. The captain was eventually imprisoned for life on unprecedented charges of “murder through willful negligence.”