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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, October 23, 2001

Danger grows with depth of dives into Ehime Maru

 •  Special report: Collision at Sea

By Tanya Bricking
Advertiser Staff Writer

Divers who plunge more than 100 feet below the surface to search the sunken Ehime Maru must dodge tangled nets, mattresses and other debris as they work to recover bodies.

Masumi and Ryosuke Terata, parents of victim Yusuke Terata, 17, said they might sue the U.S. government.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

They vacuum away polluted water and clear debris as the bubbles they exhale stir diesel fuel inside the wreckage.

They take pictures, mark logs and keep track of how many minutes they've been underwater.

One week and more than 120 dives into this segment of the Navy's $60 million Ehime Maru recovery effort, divers have searched almost half the ship and recovered six of the nine victims' bodies.

"We feel we've done a very thorough job at this point, and we're still hopeful we'll find more," said diving supervisor Capt. Christopher Murray.

But as divers go deeper — three decks down and several compartments inside the 830-ton ship — the challenge of finding bodies becomes increasingly difficult.

Deadline pressure accompanies each dive, of which the deepest last about 80 minutes.

"The main danger is going the depth that they're going into the vessel," Murray said. "They're going several compartments down into the space. There's several hazards around."

Divers try to get as far as they can into the vessel, but they must judge how much time it will take to get out before their safe dive time expires.

Silt can make the visibility poor, so it can take three or four searches of the same compartment before divers finish checking each space, he said.

Based on accounts from 26 survivors about where victims were last seen before their ship was rammed by the USS Greeneville Feb. 9 in one of the nation's worst maritime accidents, the Navy expects to find perhaps one more body.

Two victims are thought to have been swept off the ship before it sank in 2,000 feet of water.

The ship now rests in shallower water a mile from the Honolulu International Airport's reef runway.

Despite the challenges, Murray describes the diving as textbook, organized and highly choreographed.

Within 10 days the Navy expects to retrieve personal items from the ship such as the wedding ring found that belonged to 37-year-old teacher Hiroshi Makizawa.

He, along with teacher Jun Nakata and student Yusuke Terata, are among victims not identified yet. Honolulu Chief Medical Examiner Kanthi von Guenthner has yet to name one of the six victims found. Those identified so far are 17-year-old students Katsuya Nomoto and Toshiya Sakashima, chief engineer Toshimichi Furuya, crewman Hiroshi Nichida and chief radio officer Hirotaka Segawa.

"The Navy remains committed to taking every step possible to recover everyone from the Ehime Maru," said Navy Cmdr. Neil Sheehan, the liaison for victims' families. "It's incredibly important to the families. The Navy's made a commitment, and we're going to stick to our commitments."

All nine victims' families are in Honolulu, and the Navy has invited them on a boat this afternoon to review the recovery operation.

"It's been touching, the concern the families have for the divers' safety," Sheehan said. "Consistently, they've all mentioned the concern for the divers. So in their time of great grief, their concern for the people that are trying to help them is significant."

Ryosuke and Masumi Terata are not sure whether they will join today's outing. Their son, Yusuke, is presumed to be one of the victims swept out to sea. Masumi Terata said she'd rather go 9 miles off the coast of Diamond Head, where the ship went down, to remember her son. Her husband wants a memorial built at Diamond Head so everyone can remember.

Two anchors recovered from the Ehime Maru are awaiting return to the home of the Ehime Maru in Uwajima, Japan, where they will be made into a memorial at Uwajima Fisheries High School as a tribute to both those who died and the survivors.

Reach Tanya Bricking at tbricking@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8026.