Salvage of Japanese fishing boat would be momentous challenge

The Associated Press
Tuesday February 13, 2001

HONOLULU — The Navy will use a deep-sea robot to investigate the ocean floor where a Japanese fishing vessel sank after it was struck by a U.S. submarine, a Navy spokeswoman said Monday. 

Lt. Col. Christy Samuels, spokeswoman for the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, said no decision about a salvage operation had been made. She did not say when the remote-controlled submersible would be dropped. 

The possibility of a salvage operation –which has been urged by the Japanese – was the subject of a meeting planned Monday between Adm. Dennis Blair, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, and Yoshitaka Sakurada, Japan’s parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs. 

The Ehime Maru went down in 1,800 feet of water nine miles from Honolulu on Friday after it was hit by the surfacing USS Greeneville. Twenty-six people were rescued, but nine are missing and feared dead. 

The Navy and Coast Guard have searched more than 5,000 square miles with no signs of the missing, who include four Japanese students, two instructors and three crewman. 

Anguished relatives have urged the Navy to conduct a salvage operation and Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori has said rescuers should use “all available means” to raise the vessel. 

The Ehime Maru is 180 feet long and 499 tons. Bringing it nearly one-third of a mile to the surface would be costly and risky, experts said. 

“It’s a salvage operation that I think is unrealistic,” said Charles Vick of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. “I know it’s hard to say that to people.” 

Others said risks and expense will be weighed against a strong interest in avoiding damage to U.S. relations with Japan. 

“The pressure is on us very, very strongly to do something along this line,” said John Craven, a professor of ocean studies at the University of Hawaii who helped develop the Navy’s deep-submergence program. 

Craven said he could not recall the raising of an entire boat the size of the Ehime Maru from a similar depth. He said the Navy must first determine whether the ocean floor at the site is sandy or muddy and whether the vessel has broken apart. 

If it is relatively intact, Craven said, “lift bags” could be attached and inflated, raising the ship. 

But the depth at the site would pose a huge challenge. 

“Can divers operate freely in the water at 2,000 feet?” Craven asked. “The answer is probably not,” meaning the Navy would have to rely on remotely controlled robots.