Salvage of the Sewol Enters New Phase

File image

Published Jun 13, 2016 11:02 AM by The Maritime Executive

On Sunday, a team from Shanghai Salvage Company began a new stage in the recovery of the lost ferry Sewol, and dozens of family members of her 300 deceased passengers were on hand to observe as the work got under way.

Due to public pressure and government requirement, the Sewol will be lifted whole – an unusual arrangement intended to ensure that the last missing human remains will not escape the hull. Total salvage expenses are estimated to run in excess of $70 million.  In order to pick the vessel without cutting it into sections, salvors will emplace over a dozen lifting beams beneath the wreckage in order to prevent it from breaking up under the strain. This means that she will be lifted more than once: on Sunday, the salvage team moved a large floating shearlegs over the Sewol’s bow and connected it with cables to the forward end of the wreck. Over the next two days, the crane will pick up the bow so that crews can move the lifting beams beneath it – then set it down again and repeat the process at the stern. 

One naval architect involved in the process suggested that this kind of salvage has never been done in such deep water before, and he gave it an 80 percent chance of success.

Work conditions at the wreck site – including strong, changeable currents and low visibility – have made every aspect of the salvage time-consuming and difficult. The area of the wreck site is known for its underwater currents, and two divers died in the search and rescue response to the Sewol's sinking.

Over 300 died in the Sewol disaster; most of those lost were high school students. Accident investigators said that the 7,000 ton ferry was carrying twice its permitted cargo tonnage at the time of its capsize, and that crew had emptied ballast water in order to compensate for the overloading. Inquiries found that the ferry's operators were aware of stability issues on the vessel, and that regulators did not take corrective action. 

Her captain was sentenced to life in prison, the court saying that he “knowingly and totally abandoned his role when he left the ship fully aware that passengers would drown” (he was among the first off the vessel, while loudspeaker announcements repeatedly instructed passengers to stay in their cabins). Dozens of officials and company officers have also been prosecuted in relation to the sinking.