Salvage experts of the consortium of companies led by China’s state-run Shanghai Salvage Co started the underwater inspection of the sunken Sewol ferry on Wednesday.
The salvage operation is aimed at eventual lifting of the ferry, which sank on April 16, 2014 off Jindo Island, killing 304 people, with nine more people still missing.
The families of the missing victims believe that the posthumous remains of the missing persons may still be trapped in the sunken wreck.
Shanghai Salvage will use two 10,000 ton cranes and around 200 workers to lift the ferry, including around 100 divers. A Chinese barge with the giant cranes, together with a tug boat arrived at the site a few days ago.
The first exploratory dives conducted on Wednesday will be followed by dispatching of an unmanned submersible from the barge anchored some 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) off the southern island of Jindo, an official from the South Korean Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries is quoted as saying by AFP.
The initial stage of the salvage operation will be focused on the assessment of the situation based on the photos of the wreck about to be taken in the coming two months, the goal being determining the exact details of the operation.
According to the said official, there are also plans to place a net around the Sewol to prevent any bodies still trapped inside from being lost in the salvage process.
The key salvage activities are set for March the ultimate goal being raising the wreck to the surface in one piece by July.
This is the first time a 6,700 -ton ferry is being salvaged as a whole instead of being cut into several pieces as there are fears it may affect the recovery of the missing bodies.
The 6,825-ton ferry sank in 44 meters of water notorious for its strong currents and low underwater visibility.
South Korea announced plans to salvage the sunken ferry back in April, following public protests that marked the first anniversary of the tragedy, and increasing demands from the families of the victims for the ferry to be raised.
The salvage contract is said to be worth around KRW 85.1 billion (USD 73 million), payable in three phases. The first payment will be made after the completion of loss prevention and oil recovery procedures. The second tranche will be paid after the ferry is lifted and docked at the designated location, and the third installment will be made after the ferry is brought ashore for demolition.
World Maritime News Staff