SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea said Tuesday that it had agreed to a 85.1 billion won ($73 million) deal with a Chinese-led consortium to salvage a ferry that sunk in an accident that killed more than 300 people in April last year. The formal contract could be signed as early as Wednesday.
The consortium led by China's state-run firm Shanghai Salvage Co., which was picked as the preferred bidder for the project last month, plans to raise the 6,800-ton Sewol by July next year, according to Seoul's Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries. Shanghai has experience in salvaging large ships and was involved in lifting a river cruise ship that sank in China's Yangtze River. More than 400 people died in that accident in June.
"Since the typhoon season usually comes around late July or August, we think it would be best to deploy all equipment and personnel before that period to give ourselves the best shot," a ministry official, Yeon Yeong-jin, told a news briefing.
South Korea formally approved plans to salvage the Sewol in April, after demands from the victims' families who staged protests in the capital Seoul for months. The relatives hope that raising the ship will reveal details about the cause of the sinking and help find the bodies of nine passengers still missing.
Experts say lifting the Sewol from a channel notorious for strong currents could be dangerous and much harder than previous efforts around the world to salvage giant ships, which sometimes ended up costing much more than originally estimated. Two divers died searching for bodies inside the vessel last year.
The South Korean government had originally planned to drill dozens of holes into the side of the ferry, which would allow it to be tied to two huge naval cranes that would lift the vessel from the seafloor. However, Shanghai Salvage questioned the logic of relying on cables attached to a weakened ship and instead offered to lift the ferry with a frame built with metal beams.