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ANCHORAGE - The "black box" data recorder from a Coast Guard rescue helicopter that crashed killing six people was recovered Tuesday as work got under way to remove fuel from a freighter that grounded three weeks ago off Alaska's coast.
Six members of the Selendang Ayu died when the helicopter crashed into the Bering Sea shortly before the freighter grounded and broke in half Dec. 8.
The black box was found Tuesday afternoon by divers hired to recover it.
"They found it in the water around the stern of the wreck," said Petty Officer Sara Francis. She said the box and its data would be made available to the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash.
Also, Smit America salvage company spent most of Tuesday preparing to remove fuel from the Selendang Ayu. The 738-foot freighter had an estimated 424,000 gallons of intermediate fuel oil and 18,000 gallons of diesel on board when it grounded off Unalaska Island.
Salvagers know that one of the ship's fuel tanks is empty. They are working on the premise that two others are empty as well, meaning that more than three-quarters of the fuel already may be lost, Francis said.
Winds were about 25 knots and seas relatively calm Tuesday - nice weather for the Bering Sea in winter. It wasn't expected to stay that way. Rain and snow were forecast for Thursday.
"They will use every available weather window until they're done," Francis said, of the operation that could take up to a month because of weather delays.
The Selendang Ayu was traveling to China with a load of soybeans Dec. 6 when its crew shut down the main engine to do some repair work off the Aleutian chain. The Malaysia-flagged vessel drifted for nearly two days before running aground.
The Selendang's owner, Singapore-based IMC Group, is responsible for salvage and cleanup costs.
Smit America will try to offload the oil only from the stern section of the ship. Oil in the bow section, which is nearly underwater, is inaccessible.
"The operation may have to be terminated before completion if the wreck, which is breaking up, becomes unacceptably dangerous," the Houston-based company's salvage plan said.
The salvage team is composed of three Smit America employees and a member of the Coast Guard.
Before offloading could begin, the pilot house and decks had to be cleared of obstacles. The work involved using torches to remove an arch-shaped mast on top of the pilot house, hand rails and other structures so that large equipment could be delivered to the ship.
Plans called for using helicopters with slings to deliver a variety of equipment, including pumps, generators, hose and 7-foot "retrieving cubes" for the oil.
The salvage team will hot tap through the main deck to get to the ship's fuel tanks. Hot tapping is a procedure where pipes can be cut without spilling oil. The team will have to go through the diesel tanks to get to the fuel tanks, Francis said.
The strategy is to give priority to those tanks believed to contain the most oil.
Smit America will focus on seven tanks next to the engine room, including one on the port side with 29,500 gallons and another on the starboard side with 56,875 gallons.
"They want to get the most they can while they can before storms come through ... and change the configuration of the wreck," Francis said.
The No. 2 tank that contained 41,032 gallons was severed when the ship broke apart and is empty. Salvage crews believe that the No. 1 tank with 176,473 gallons and the No. 3 tank with 140,448 gallons also are empty.
Once the cubes are filled, a heavy-lift helicopter will ferry the cubes to a quarry in Dutch Harbor. From there, they will be trucked to Magone Marine salvage company for disposal.
So far, 76,000 pounds of oily waste have been collected from the shoreline of Unalaska Island. A dead sea otter and more than 40 dead birds have been recovered. Six rehabilitated birds have been released.