Two Years After Sinking, Ferry Sewol Will be Raised

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Published Sep 6, 2017 10:01 PM by The Maritime Executive

In marking the two-year anniversary of the tragic sinking of the ferry Sewol, the South Korean government issued an update Friday on the salvage effort to raise her wreck and the nine bodies thought to remain inside. 

The vessel lies in 150 feet of water off of Jindo Island; the South Korean Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said in January that 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 is known for its underwater currents, and two divers died in the search and rescue response to the Sewol's sinking.

On Friday, the government detailed plans to complete the salvage, including emplacement of air bags within the hull for buoyancy, the fitting of nearly 30 cross-beams under the vessel to support its weight during the two-day lift process, and the enclosure of the entire ship within a net and cage structure to ensure that any human remains will not escape. Unlike most wreck removals, which depend on cutting the hull into sections, the Sewol will be lifted whole, reflecting the government’s priority on recovering remains of the deceased. Despite the expanded scope of work and challenging site conditions, the government said that contracted salvors Shanghai Salvage would complete the work in July 2016 - in line with their initial schedule. 

Over 300 died in the Sewol disaster, and most of those lost were high school students. The accident sparked a nationwide wave of outrage directed at the ferry's operator, her crew, and at South Korea's maritime regulators; the public outcry over the incident continues to put pressure on the highest levels of South Korea's government to complete the salvage.

Accident investigators said that the Sewol 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, reducing stability. Inquiries found that the ferry's operators were aware of routine overloading aboard the vessel, and that regulators did not take action to correct this practice.

As the vessel began to slowly capsize, her crew ordered passengers to remain inside to await rescue. At the same time, the captain was among the first to escape and the first to reach a rescue vessel. He was sentenced to life in prison for his part in the accident, the court saying that he “knowingly and totally abandoned his role when he left the ship fully aware that passengers would drown.” Dozens of officials and company officers have also been prosecuted in relation to the sinking, and the chairman of the firm that owned and operated her, Yoo Byung Eun, was found dead several months after the accident.

Correction: Many outlets – including The Maritime Executive – have incorrectly described Chonghaejin's chairman, Yoo Byung-eun, as the Sewol’s owner. Yoo did not have any ownership interest in Chonghaejin: two of Yoo's sons, Yoo Dae-kyun and Yoo Hyuck-ki, controlled the largest stake in the firm through a series of holding companies. Prosecutors alleged that Yoo Byung-eun retained de facto control of the company, but not formal ownership. The Maritime Executive has corrected the coverage above to reflect this fact.