HONOLULU – The sunken fisheries training ship Ehime Maru was towed by a salvage ship to a shallow-water site Sunday, finally setting the stage for divers to begin searching the wreck for victims.
The Rockwater 2, a civilian salvage vessel, and the Ehime Maru reached the shallow-water site 1.6 km off Honolulu International Airport on Sunday afternoon.
The navy is expected to moor a large vessel alongside the Ehime Maru to use as a platform for conducting the search inside the ship for the remains of the nine Japanese killed in the accident and for the personal effects of the victims, navy officials said earlier.
The search, involving 66 U.S. and 30 Japanese divers, will begin Thursday at the earliest, the officials said.
Divers will begin the search after removing mud, fishing nets and other objects from the ship. The operation is scheduled to continue for about a month.
Hisao Onishi, captain of the Ehime Maru, will be aboard the salvage vessel with divers from the Maritime Self-Defense Force. He will advise U.S. Navy divers on the structure of the Ehime Maru and analyze the images to be sent from inside the sunken ship.
The 499-ton Ehime Maru, from the Uwajima Fisheries High School in Ehime Prefecture, was struck and sunk by the submarine USS Greeneville Feb. 9 while the sub was conducting an emergency-surfacing maneuver for a group of civilian visitors aboard.
The nine Japanese, including four students of the high school, were killed, while 26 other students and crew members were rescued.
The salvage operation to move the Ehime Maru to shallow water began Aug. 7, but it took more than two months to complete due to a series of problems.
Using underwater robots, experts aboard the Rockwater 2 managed to slide giant straps underneath the sunken ship, encase it in a frame and lift it from its resting place at a depth of about 600 meters.
But the straps broke twice, and the operation cost $20 million more than the $40 million originally allocated by the U.S. Navy.
After the search operation is completed, the ship will be taken to deep water for its final resting place.
On Saturday, six relatives of a 17-year-old boy and a 33-year-old instructor who were among the nine Ehime Maru victims arrived in Honolulu to observe the search operation.
Kazuo Nakata, 56-year-old father of Jun Nakata, the instructor, and three of his other relatives arrived along with the parents of student Yusuke Terata — father Ryosuke, 45, and mother Masumi, 43.
Terata later released a statement that said, “I appreciate the U.S. Navy (salvage efforts) and hope the operation goes smoothly and safely.
“I still hope my son is inside the ship, and want to watch the search operation quietly,” Terata wrote. His wife wrote she became tearful when she saw the sea where her son drowned.