Crew bails out on listing ship

22 crew members safe, but 5,000 cars on the vessel

Posted: Tuesday, July 25, 2006

ANCHORAGE - The rescue of crew members of an Asian ship listing on its side in the Pacific Ocean began late Monday, officials said.

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"The first helicopter is on the scene, and starting hoist operations," said Alaska National Guard spokesman Maj. Mike Haller.

Two National Guard Pave Hawk helicopters and a Coast Guard helicopter will pick up the 22 crew members of the Cougar Ace, 230 miles from Adak Island in the Aleutians. The crew members all had donned survival suits as the ship began to take on water.

The intent, Haller said, was to deliver all crew members to Adak Island.

"We will try to pick up all of them, if they can, if not, at least most of them," he said. If not all can be taken to Adak, the remainder will be transferred to a nearby merchant marine ship.

The Cougar Ace began listing in the turbulent Pacific Ocean late Sunday night, when the crew sent out an SOS.

A Coast Guard plane earlier Monday dropped three life rafts, but roiling waters shoved the rafts underneath the dipping port side of the 654-foot ship. Racing against an increasingly tilting ship, rescuers tossed an additional raft along the higher starboard side, but it was a 150-foot drop to the water and beyond their reach.

The Cougar Ace had been carrying nearly 5,000 cars from Japan to Canada when it began taking on water Sunday night.

"It's sitting on its side, basically," Petty Officer Stephen Harrison said.

A merchant marine ship crew that had been in the area reached the vessel Monday morning. The crew of that ship tried, but failed, to rig a line to the Cougar Ace to keep it from tilting further.

Near the vessel, Coast Guard officers could see a 2-mile oil sheen, though officials said it was difficult to say how much of the ship's 430 metric tons of fuel oil or 112 metric tons of diesel fuel had spilled. The ocean was choppy, with rain squalls and 8- to 10-foot seas reported.

Communications between the crew and Coast Guard became increasingly difficult Monday when the batteries in the crew's hand-held radio dimmed, Coast Guard Lt. Mara Booth-Miller said. Crew members had to shout information to the merchant ship, which then relayed messages back and forth to the Coast Guard.

The Singapore-flagged Coug-ar Ace - owned by Tokyo-based Mitsui O.S.K. Lines - was carrying 4,813 vehicles from Japan to Vancouver, British Columbia, said Greg Beuerman, a spokes-man for the ship owner. There were no reports of any cars going overboard. Beuerman said typically vehicles are securely fastened.

"Obviously, the primary concern for all involved is the safety of the crew on board," he said. "The vessel is of critical importance as well, but the first priority is the health and the safety of the crew."

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There were no other injuries reported beyond the on crew member's broken leg, according to Harrison.

Beuerman said the ship was equipped with life boats and rafts, but it would have been too risky to use them in this situation.

It wasn't immediately clear what had caused the ship to list. Its crew sent out an SOS late Sunday night but didn't know where the water was coming in, McKenzie said.

A Coast Guard cutter was on its way to the area, 230 miles south of the island of Adak in the western Aleutians. The cutter, based in Honolulu, had been on routine patrol 700 miles southeast of the troubled ship when it was diverted to help the crew of the listing ship shortly before midnight. It was expected to reach the Cougar Ace on Tuesday.

Beside the Coast Guard helicopter, two Pave Hawk helicopters, two refueling planes and a C-130 plane were sent from Kulis Air National Guard Base in Anchorage. Guard crews carried rafts and survival kits, including food, water, flares and radios, said Guard spokeswoman Kalei Brooks.

Early on, the Coast Guard alerted the clinic at the small town of Adak - a former Naval air station on the island of the same name - to gear up for treating at least one broken leg and possible hypothermia cases. Nurse practitioner Michael Terry said residents hustled to set up cots and blankets at the community center, prepare food and coffee, gather donations of warm clothing. The clinic rounded up emergency medics and braced for action.

"We actually were preparing to have an air disaster drill at the airport (Tuesday) so we moved it up a day," Terry said. "We're all stressed up and no where to go."

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