By Rob PerezFriday, April 27, 2001
The phone call came shortly after the accident.
front money to lift
Someone representing family members of the nine who died in the Feb. 9 sinking of the Ehime Maru had a question for Jay Friedheim, a Honolulu attorney specializing in maritime law.
If money were raised in Japan to pay for lifting the vessel to recover the bodies, would the U.S. government be obligated to reimburse the funds?
The question triggered hours of research by Friedheim, including a discussion last month with top maritime law experts he met at a mainland conference.
The answer: Yes.
Under the federal Public Vessels Act, Friedheim says, the surviving family members can sue the U.S. government and seek, among other things, "reasonable burial expenses."
Friedheim believes an argument can be made that the cost of lifting the Ehime Maru to recover the bodies for cremation can be considered a burial expense. Although the Navy has estimated a salvage operation could run as much as $40 million, a leading maritime salvage company says the job, on a much more pared-down scale, could be done for roughly $2 million.
The USS Greeneville, a Navy nuclear sub, rammed the Ehime Maru in waters off Oahu while the crew was showing off a surfacing maneuver to civilian guests. Cmdr. Scott Waddle, the sub's skipper, this week received a letter of reprimand -- but no court-martial -- for his role in the accident. Although Waddle's Navy career is ruined, the punishment has been criticized as being far too lenient. He will be able to retire with full benefits.
The Navy currently is doing an environmental assessment to determine whether it is feasible to conduct a salvage operation on the Ehime Maru, which sits in 2,003 feet of water.
The $2 million estimate Friedheim got was based on using a single barge to lift the 500-ton fishing ship. A huge concrete block with a pulley attached would be sunk to the ocean floor so a line could be tethered to it, the Ehime Maru and the barge. With the help of giant air bags, the vessel would be slowly lifted to just below the surface so the bodies could be removed.
Friedheim says reporters from Japan have told him money for a salvage operation could be raised there through donations. "They say the Japanese public seems willing to put up money to do the job."
No matter who foots the bill, the bodies need to be recovered because that is the right thing to do for the surviving family members, Friedheim says. Seeing that happen is especially important to Hawaii and its tourism industry, which benefits greatly from Japanese visitors.
"It's more like a community obligation to set this right," Friedheim says. "If we don't show these families and the people of Japan that the aloha spirit extends to visitors, they're not going to come."
Star-Bulletin columnist Rob Perez writes on issues
and events affecting Hawaii. Fax 529-4750, or write to
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
Honolulu 96813. He can also be reached
by e-mail at: email@example.com.