Saturday, October 13, 2001

Navy heads for
shallower waters off
Honolulu Airport after
raising Ehime Maru

The search for victims
could begin next week

By Gregg K. Kakesako

Buoyed by its success in raising the battered Japanese vessel Ehime Maru, the Navy appears confident that it should be in calmer waters near the Honolulu Airport's reef runway sometime this weekend.

This could mean that unless there are other problems, 60 Navy and several Japanese civilian divers could undertake a search of the Ehime Maru sometime next week for the remains of four teenage boys, two of their teachers and three crewmen missing for the past eight months.

Lt. Cmdr. Gregg Baumann, the Navy's relocation manager, yesterday didn't want to pinpoint exactly when the Rockwater 2 would complete its 16-mile journey to the shallow-water recovery site one mile south of the reef runway. All he would say was that it could take place "sometime this weekend," depending on the weather and safety factors.

The other challenge facing the Rockwater 2 is the "big lift" two or three miles from the reef runway shallow water site when the Ehime Maru has to be gradually raised 1,500 feet as it is moved up a reef shelf.

Factors such as tides, currents, weather and winds will determine when the Navy will attempt that move because of the danger of oil spillage. That transit will only be done during daylight hours.

Baumann said the weather has been "extremely cooperative" with the seas running from two to four feet and the winds averaging 10 to 15 knots. No storm fronts are predicted through next week, increasing the Navy's chances for a smooth operation.

By yesterday afternoon the Rockwater 2, with the Ehime Maru suspended under it, had traveled nearly 3.5 miles from where it sank Feb. 9 within minutes after being struck by the nuclear attack submarine USS Greeneville. Twenty-six of the 35 crewmen and passengers were rescued.

Baumann said the Rockwater 2 has kept the Ehime Maru suspended anywhere from 60 to 90 feet above the ocean floor, with distance determined by the contour of the sea floor. The Navy doesn't want to raise the Ehime Maru too high in case it has to bring it down suddenly.

After overcoming several technical hurdles earlier this week, the 60-member Navy and civilian crew of the Rockwater 2 was able to lift the 190-foot, 830-ton Ehime Maru six feet above the sea floor at 1:30 a.m. yesterday. It was then raised another 30 to 40 feet while two remotely operated vehicles, Quest II and Trident XL16, inspected the bottom of the vessel for about three hours.

Baumann said the survey revealed that the damage to the Ehime Maru was "well within the expectations and planning the engineers had put forth in putting this recovery together."

He added: " We are confident that there is enough structural integrity left in the vessel to proceed further on with this operation."

Baumann said the gash created by the sail of the Greeneville when it cut into the hull of the Ehime Maru begins aft of the vessel's pilot house and runs diagonally. He couldn't give the exact dimensions of the hole.

With the Rockwater 2 in the middle, the convoy of a half-dozen ships and a spotter helicopter began the northerly journey toward shore at 4 a.m. initially traveling at 0.2 knots and increasing its speed to 0.8 knots.

During the initial lift early yesterday morning Baumann estimated that there was only "a minimal oil release" -- about three to 10 gallons of diesel fuel. He described it as "a small burp." The Navy has estimated that only 10,000 of the 60,000 gallons of diesel fuel the Ehime Maru had onboard Feb. 9 for the trip to Japan still remains.

Equipment on the Rockwater 2 constantly measures the tension of the lifting wires as the ship moves to the reef runway, Baumann said.

At this point, Baumann said, the Navy is "very ecstatic" that it has been able to raise and move the Ehime Maru since this is an unprecedented operation -- the first time Navy salvage and recovery teams have raised a vessel as heavy as the Ehime Maru from depths of 2,000 feet.

"The morale is extremely high," Baumann added. However, he cautioned, "We're not out of the woods yet, and we're not getting overconfident.

"This is just the first part of the operation. There is still the diving to do."


Ehime Maru moves

For the first time, the Navy has raised a vessel as heavy as the Ehime Maru (830 tons) from as deep as 2,000 feet. The planning began in April, and preparations at the site nine miles south of Diamond Head were initiated in August.

This is how the operation turned out:

>>11:30 p.m. Thursday: Linear winches aboard the oil exploratory vessel Rockwater 2 begin to take the slack out of the lifting lines.

>> 1:30 a.m. Friday: The Rockwater 2 raises the Ehime Maru six feet. Two remotely operated vehicles inspect the ship's hull.

>> 4 a.m. Friday: The Rockwater 2, accompanied by six support ships and a spotter helicopter, begins the 16-mile transit to a site one mile south of the reef runway.

>> 3 p.m. Friday: The Rockwater 2, with the Ehime Maru suspended below it, has traveled 3.2 miles.

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