Zeebrugge, Belgium — Salvage experts from several Western European countries this past week began the difficult and dangerous task of recovering the British passenger ferry that sank off the Belgian coast last month. By late April 7, two barges and three floating cranes had succeeded in winching the 9,000-ton vessel - which lay on its side half submerged in shallow water about a mile from shore - into an upright position. Divers from Belgium and Britain, aided by powerful floodlights, worked through the night searching for the bodies of remaining victims.
Officials praised the operation as a textbook example of international cooperation under extremely taxing circumstances.
``We have had tremendous cooperation'' from the Belgian authorities, Peter Ford, chairman of Townsend Thoresen, which operated the ship, said at a news conference April 8. ``We can't say enough in their praise.''
But confusion over the actual number of victims still believed to be on board the ship muted the delight with how the operation was proceeding.
The boat sank shortly after leaving Zeebrugge March 6 on a regular run to Dover. The cause of the disaster - believed to be one of the worst in the history of modern English Channel shipping - is under investigation.
Mr. Ford insisted April 8 that about 543 passengers had traveled on the ship - ``a few more or a few less.'' There was no fixed passenger list, and the list of survivors, he conceded, was ``never perfect'' because the surviving passengers used various means of escape. Some never recorded their escape to the authorities, he said, and tracking them down has been difficult.
Townsend Thoresen says at least 409 people survived the disaster. On the night of the accident, divers found 61 bodies. This past week, at least 120 more victims were found, but many are thought to be trapped under tons of sand that have accumulated in the ship over the past month. British police have said that 133 Britons were unaccounted for after the accident.
Now the ship must be refloated by sealing all openings and pumping some 15,000 tons of water and sand from the hull.
``At the moment, we are optimistic about finishing the job in two weeks' time,'' Hans Walenkamp, head of the Dutch salvage company Smit Tak, which has coordinated the recovery operation, said April 8. ``But we are still very much dependent on the weather. So far, we have been very lucky.''