Crews remove fuel from port side of freighter

Windward side of hulk vulnerable to constant Bering Sea wave action

Posted: Wednesday, January 12, 2005

ANCHORAGE - Fuel removal resumed on the Selendang Ayu on Tuesday after crews built a steel barrier to protect workers from the fierce waves of the Bering Sea washing over the port side of the broken freighter.

A salvage team recovered nearly 6,400 gallons of fuel oil after completion of a 3 1/2 feet tall chute built over an opening leading to below-deck tanks. The chute - called a coffer dam - allows easier access for crews while shielding the working area on the listing port side, which is much more vulnerable to the crashing sea, said Petty Officer Thomas McKenzie of the Coast Guard.

A small amount of fuel oil remaining on the starboard side also was removed Tuesday.

The total fuel and water recovered to date stands at nearly 41,400 gallons.

McKenzie said today's forecast called for 35 knot winds and rain, which could delay further work, but the storm was expected to pass by Thursday, McKenzie said.

Rough weather has hindered cleanup efforts since the soybean freighter broke in half Dec. 8, causing a major oil spill, after it ran hard aground off the western shore of the island in the Aleutians chain. Six crew members were lost at sea in the crash of a Coast Guard helicopter carrying them away just before the disabled ship wrecked.

Most of the estimated 442,000 gallons of fuel once on the boat is believed lost, although the Coast Guard said no one actually knows how much was spilled.

"I cannot hazard a guess," McKenzie said. "We know how much was in there originally, but we still don't know how much was lost and we're very leery about releasing figures we're unsure of."

The Malaysia-flagged freighter, loaded with soybeans en route from Tacoma, Wash., to China, was carrying an estimated 424,000 gallons of intermediate fuel oil and 18,000 gallons of diesel when it grounded, two days after its crew shut down the main engine to do some repair work. The Selendang Ayu's owner, Singapore-based IMC Group, is responsible for salvage and cleanup costs.

The FBI is participating with the Coast Guard and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a criminal investigation of the grounding. The National Transportation Safety Board also is investigating the grounding, as well as the Coast Guard helicopter crash, even though the agency generally doesn't investigate crashes involving the military.

"We're involved because civil fatalities were associated with the crash," said Scott Erickson, an NTSB air safety investigator in Anchorage.

The "black box" data recorder from the helicopter was recovered Dec. 28 and turned over to the NTSB, but Erickson said the agency's role is secondary to the Coast Guard investigation. He said he expects to file an ancillary report to the NTSB's marine investigation within a year.

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