As engineers proceeded Sunday with preparations to move the ill-fated ferry ashore, currently loaded on a semisubmersible transport vessel at Mokpo Port, South Korea's Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries announced a plan to resume an underwater search of the wreck site.
Starting from Sunday night, 50 divers were to begin work in rotation to search the seabed area of about 32,000 square meters, where the sunken Sewol lay for nearly three years until it was lifted out of the water last week.
In order to prevent the victims’ bodies from being lost during the lifting process, salvage engineers installed an underwater steel fence 200 meters long, 160 meters wide and 3 meters high. The area inside the fence was divided into 40 sections for detailed search.
“The maritime search operation inside the fence should begin tonight,” said Lee Cheol-jo, an official from the Oceans Ministry who oversees the salvage and search operation.
But the official cautioned that strong tide in the area might prevent active searching by divers. “We have strong tides today and may face difficulty diving,” Lee added.
Sewol sank nearly three years ago in the nation’s worst peace-time maritime disaster, leaving over 300 dead, mostly high school students on a field trip. Nine passengers are still unaccounted for. The search for those missing has been on hold since November 2014, when the government decided to salvage the ship without cutting it into pieces.
On Sunday, some belongings of Sewol passengers were found as engineers worked to remove mud from the recovered ferry, which was transported to Mokpo Port on Friday. The ship is expected to be moved to a dry dock Thursday.
Among objects found were handbags, cards and pens, which presumably belonged to the victims, as well as the passport of the ship’s captain Lee Jun-seok, who is in prison on a life sentence for abandoning the ship and its passengers.
The search team also found fragments of animal bones on the ferry’s deck Sunday, where the team had found pieces of animal bone last week. The authorities had initially thought the pieces came from victims until the forensic experts said otherwise.
The government began the work of bringing the Sewol ashore by sending the first batch of transporters to pull the wreckage out of the transport vessel carrying it. The whole package of transporters is expected to arrive Thursday.
About 80 workers will be deployed to remove the mud and the whole process will be conducted manually, the ministry said, citing concerns that remains of the victims or their belongings, if any, could be damaged during the search operation.
“We are going to proceed cautiously and slowly,” said Lee. “It is not something that requires high-level expertise. What’s more important is how we handle (the situation), when we come across bodies.”