Ships tossed ashore by tsunami get rescued

June 17, 2011 - 5:26 AM
Japan Tsunami Stranded Ships

In this June 15, 2011 photo, one of ships washed ashore by the March 11 tsunami sits with red belly and a propeller exposed among debris of demolished houses in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, northeastern Japan. The devastated port of Kesennuma has begun the huge, costly task of moving ships heaved inland by the tsunami back to the ocean, a key step toward restoring the town's fishing industry and confidence. (AP Photo/Malcolm Foster)

KESENNUMA, Japan (AP) — More than a dozen ships heaved inland by Japan's tsunami in March sit with red bellies and propellers exposed among the demolished houses of this once-bustling fishing town, a jarring daily reminder of the ocean's awesome power.

The enormous task and cost of moving these out-of-place vessels — and the debris around them — has kept them stranded in Kesennuma for over three months. Many have been propped up with metal beams so they won't topple over.

Determined to recover, the town has now begun the Herculean job of returning some of the beached ships to the sea. Several ship owners banded together to jointly negotiate a cost with a logistics company to move five of the vessels in a deal that insurers have agreed to cover.

Even after the group rate, the amount per ship is more than $1 million.

But putting these vessel back into action is crucial to restarting Kesennuma's fish markets and restoring the community's economy and confidence.

"This is a fishing town, so if the ships get moving and start catching fish again, we're hopeful that might lead to things picking up here," said Keiko Onodera, 67, whose hillside house overlooking the port survived tsunami waters that reached her front steps.

All told, authorities estimate that the tsunami swept 17 ships weighing over 20 tons and another 1,000 smaller fishing boats onto land around town. Some of the bigger ships farther from the port will be cut into scrap metal, but vessels closer to the water and with modest damage are being rescued.

This week, two towering cranes hoisted the 400-ton Akane Maru No. 1, a deep-sea salmon and saury fishing boat, about 10 meters (30 feet) off the ground from where it had been tossed by the wave 100 meters (yards) from the water.

The cranes gently lowered the ship onto a huge trolley of modular segments in primary colors that looks like a super-sized Lego creation. It was the start of what would be a three-day operation organized by Penta-Ocean Construction Co.

The 192-tire trolley — normally used for transporting equipment such as train cars — then slowly rolled toward the wharf. On Friday, the cranes lifted the boat up and into the water.

After some repairs, the Akane Maru No. 1 should be ready to start fishing again in August, when the season for Pacific saury starts, ship owner Hirohito Ikeda said.

"The tsunami inflicted great damage on this seaport, and the ships that were swept onto the land showed the tsunami's ferocity and strength," he said. "But now that our boat is being rescued ... we hope it can encourage people to keep pressing on."

At first, salvage crews and the insurance company said returning the Akane Maru to the sea was too expensive and complicated, Ikeda said.

After lengthy negotiations with Penta-Ocean Construction and insurance companies, the parties came up with a deal costing just under 500 million yen ($6 million) to move the Akane Maru and four other ships in a cluster about a quarter mile (400 meters) from the port, Ikeda said.

"We've barely made progress getting back on our feet the past three months. It really seems slow," he said, gazing out at the largely empty harbor, where huge cylindrical tanks remain toppled over and warehouses are in shreds. "We really don't want people to forget about what's happening in Kesennuma."

The town has a deep harbor protected by a large island that absorbed the initial onslaught of the wave.

When the tsunami struck the town on March 11, it poured over its seawalls and wharfs as rapidly rising water. The surge swept ships into the town, past warehouses and shops, and later the water flowed swiftly back out to sea with debris and parts of houses in tow as black smoke billowed from fires that erupted around town.

The tsunami left 1,433 dead and missing in Kesennuma.

Three months after the disaster, much of the neighborhood around the port remains destroyed, dotted with piles of debris — crumbled cars, twisted metal, wooden planks, plastic buckets. Houses higher up in surrounding hills remain intact.

Mika Komatsu, 32, lives in the second floor of her damaged house because the first floor was ruined in the tsunami. She and her mother watched one of the recent ship rescues for hours until it was complete.

"It's a good feeling," she said. "It's a start at getting things back to normal."

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Associated Press Writer Jay Alabaster contributed to this report.