Insufficient stability is blamed for turning ship

Posted: Thursday, July 27, 2006

ANCHORAGE - The Cougar Ace was thrown sideways when the massive ship's ballast tank was adjusted in the open seas of the North Pacific, a representative of the vessel owner said Wednesday.

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"There clearly was imbalance in the intake of ballast water. The company investigation ultimately will tell us what caused that imbalance," said Greg Beuerman, a spokesman for Tokyo-based Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, which owns the 654-foot car carrier.

Two days after the bruised and battered crew was hoisted to safety, the disabled ship remained floating on its side 230 miles south of Adak Island in Alaska's Aleutian chain. Still unknown was the fate of the nearly 5,000 cars - mostly Mazdas - secured in compartments with heavy chains inside the vessel. Watertight compartments and doors in the ship could be contributing to the ship's buoyancy, Beuerman said.

Coast Guard officials said the Honolulu-based cutter Rush will remain at the remote site until a salvage tow arrives next week to retrieve the Singapore-flagged ship. No additional oil has been detected around the ship, other than a light sheen already reported, said Petty Officer Jesami Statesir. The ship had been carrying 430 metric tons of fuel oil or 112 metric tons of diesel fuel.

Coast Guard and Alaska Air National Guard helicopters rescued the 23 crew members of the Cougar Ace Monday night, 24 hours after the ship tilted sharply in the space of 10 minutes. The crew was in Anchorage Wednesday, being interviewed by company officials, insurance agents and attorneys, Beuerman said.

The Cougar Ace's captain told officials the vessel began to list when the crew was changing the water level in the ballast tank, which regulates the ship's weight and balance. Beuerman said he didn't know anything about earlier reports a large wave hit the ship during the adjustment. He said the mishap appeared to be caused by insufficient stability within the vessel, not by a collision or outside flooding.

Mitsui also announced Wednesday it had hired Crowley Maritime Corp.

Oakland, Calif.-based Crowley is enlisting its salvage subsidiary Titan Maritime LLC of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to right the vessel and tow it to a U.S. or Canadian port. Crowley spokesman Mark Miller said Titan had conducted more than 200 salvage and wreck removal projects during the past 25 years.

Crowley tug Sea Victory left Seattle Tuesday night and was expected to reach the Cougar Ace Aug. 2, according to Beuerman.

Because the Cougar Ace ran into trouble in international waters, the Coast Guard said it is monitoring the ship, but not taking an enforcement role.

Officials with Mazda Motor Corp. said more than 4,700 of the cars on board the Cougar Ace are various Mazda models, including the popular lines, Mazda3 and CX-7. The cars were being shipped from Japan to Vancouver, British Columbia, Tacoma, Wash., and Port Hueneme, northwest of Los Angeles.

Jeremy Barnes, a company spokesman, didn't know the total value of the vehicles, saying their retail costs ranged between $13,500 and $35,000 apiece. The shipment represents just a fraction of Mazda's North American inventory. But Barnes said it's considered a "very significant" number, even though more than 258,000 Mazdas were sold in the United States alone last year.

"We're certainly concerned about the condition of the vehicle," he said "But the important part of this is that the crew members were safely transferred from the ship."

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