Operation to lift sunken South Korean ferry suspended due to high waves, strong winds

A giant crane that will lift up the sunken Sewol ferry is seen during a salvage project in the sea off Jindo on June 12, 2016.
A giant crane that will lift up the sunken Sewol ferry is seen during a salvage project in the sea off Jindo on June 12, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - Strong waves forced the suspension of an operation to lift a South Korean ferry that sank in 2014 in a disaster that shocked and enraged the country, a spokesman said on Tuesday (June 14).

Attempts to raise the bow of the vessel that began on Sunday afternoon marked the start of a long and difficult process to bring the wreckage to the surface, a key demand of victims' families who hope nine bodies still unaccounted for may yet be recovered.

But high waves and strong winds compelled a salvage company to put off the operation Monday after lifting the bow slightly, the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said. "The operation will resume late this month when weather improves and tides are weak, a ministry spokesman told AFP.

The bow of the ship was lifted by 2.2 degrees, or about 4m, during the operation but lifting wires sawed into the wreck because of jolts from the waves, forcing the company to suspend the work, he said.

Once the bow is lifted, lifting beams will be put underneath, and work will follow in the same way on the stern section.

Buoys will then be placed underneath the wreck to reduce gravity before giant floating cranes start pulling up cables.

"It's difficult to predict exactly when the ship will be brought to the surface but we now hope to do so sometime in August", he added.

The Sewol was carrying 476 people when it sank off the south-western island of Jindo in April 2014, with the loss of 304 lives - most of them schoolchildren.

Seoul last year announced plans to salvage the 6,825-tonne ship and selected a Chinese consortium led by state-run Shanghai Salvage Co. to spearhead the US$72 million project.

The Sewol lies more than 40m beneath the surface, and officials say lifting the 145m-long vessel from the seabed without causing it to break up will be the main challenge.

A naval architect involved in the project put the success rate at 80 per cent at a press briefing in April, saying lifting a wreck in one piece from such a depth had never been done before.

The disaster was mainly due to human error - an illegal redesign of the ship, 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 sentences ranging from two to 12 years were handed down to 14 other crew members.