HONOLULU – The U.S. Navy on Friday unveiled plans to start salvaging the Japanese fisheries training ship Ehime Maru in August and recover the bodies of nine people believed to have been trapped inside the vessel when it sank off Hawaii following a collision with a U.S. submarine in February.
The U.S. Navy has concluded that the operation, which is to start as early as late August, will have no serious environmental impact. The relatives of the victims have been demanding that the ship be salvaged.
The operation will involve several steps: Lifting the vessel from the seabed, moving it to shallower waters and sending down teams of U.S. and Japanese divers to search for the bodies.
The U.S. Navy estimates that the total cost of the operation will be $40 million.
Defense Agency officials in Tokyo said Saturday that about 130 Maritime Self-Defense Force officers, including expert divers, as well as an MSDF ship will be sent to Hawaii to take part in the salvage operation. The science ministry also plans to dispatch its deep-water research ship and an unmanned submersible vessel.
The 499-ton Ehime Maru, owned by a fisheries training high school in Uwajima, Ehime Prefecture, sank after it was rammed by the U.S. nuclear-powered submarine Greeneville on Feb. 9.
Nine of the 35 people aboard the ship, including four 17-year-old boys from Uwajima Fisheries High School, remain listed as missing, believed dead. The ship presently lies on the seabed some 600 meters from the surface about 16 km off Diamond Head on Oahu Island.
According to the Navy’s latest report on its assessment of the environmental impact of the operation, the Ehime Maru would be lifted to about 30 meters off the seabed before being moved to a shallower area, about 35 meters deep, off Honolulu international airport.
This phase of the salvage operation is expected to last from late August to early September.
At that point, Japan would send its Kaiko unmanned submersible to undertake a detailed study of the ship.
The salvage plan calls for all diesel fuel and lubricant oil left inside the vessel to be removed before a combined team of divers from Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force and the U.S. Navy is sent inside the ship to search for and retrieve human remains and personal belongings.
The U.S. Navy has requested the help of Japanese divers to determine which belongings are worth retrieving and to read the Japanese characters on those items.
After the search operation is completed, the U.S. Navy plans to move the Ehime Maru outside U.S. territorial waters and dump it at a depth of about 1,800 meters.
The navy is also considering recovering part of the ship’s wreckage and turning it into a monument to the tragedy.
The entire operation is scheduled to be finished by the end of October.
The environmental assessment was prepared in coordination with federal and Hawaii State agencies over a period of three months, but the report also says there is a possibility the Ehime Maru cannot be lifted because the extent of damage to its hull has not yet been determined.
“Although the navy is confident it will be able to successfully conduct the operation, the recovery is not without risks and there is no guarantee of success,” the report states.
Meanwhile, the Education Board of Kagawa Prefecture said Saturday that U.S. Navy divers will make an orientation tour of a Kagawa fisheries training ship while it makes a port call in Honolulu between July 1 and 4 to refuel. The tour is expected to take place on July 2 or 3, it added.
The structure of the Kagawa Maru is similar to that of the Ehime Maru and the U.S. divers intend to familiarize themselves with the vessel in preparation for the dives.
The U.S. Navy asked Japan’s education and foreign ministries for access to a similar boat in late May to examine features, such as the arrangements of its cabins and the locations of fuel pipes, the board said.
Commander and kin
UWAJIMA, Ehime Pref. (Kyodo) The commander of U.S. naval forces in Japan visited Uwajima, Ehime Prefecture, on Saturday to give a briefing on plans to salvage the fisheries training ship Ehime Maru in August.
Rear Adm. Robert Chaplin told survivors and relatives of the nine Japanese who were lost at sea in the accident that the navy has decided to go ahead with salvaging the ship and explained the steps involved in the operation.
Chaplin later told reporters that the operation has an 80 percent likelihood of being successful.
He said divers searching the interior of the ship will retrieve as much of the belongings of the nine missing people as possible and return them to Uwajima.
The video footage of the search inside the ship will be provided to the relatives later, he added.
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