Hope fades for 18 crew members missing in explosion of tanker

Three confirmed dead as Coast Guard focuses on cleanup off Va. coast

March 01, 2004|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

With little hope of finding survivors from a commercial tanker that exploded and sank off the coast of Virginia on Saturday, Coast Guard officials turned their attention yesterday to determining the cause of the catastrophic blast and the cleanup of a 6-mile slick of sludgy oil and diesel fuel.

Nine crew members - all Filipinos - were rescued from a life raft in the murky Atlantic waters 58 miles off Chincoteague shortly after the tanker sank about 7:15 p.m., but three of them died.

Two of the crew members died in Maryland hospitals and a third died on a private fishing vessel that went to the scene.

Three crewmen remained under treatment at a Norfolk, Va., hospital last night, while the others were released yesterday, authorities said.

But 18 others - 15 Filipinos and three Greeks - remained missing and are presumed to have died in the explosion or in the frigid ocean.

"At this point, the search is essentially over," said Jerry Crooks, Coast Guard chief of investigations for marine safety in Hampton Roads, Va. "The focus now is on the pollution and investigating the cause of the incident."

Coast Guard officials, who are leading the investigation, said there is no evidence that the explosion that sank the 570-foot tanker Bow Mariner was deliberate.

The tanker was carrying 3.5 million gallons of industrial ethanol from New York to Houston, in addition to 200,000 gallons of oil fuel and 50,000 gallons of diesel fuel for its use.

The ship is owned by a Norway-based firm, but was operating under a Singapore flag.

The ship underwent two routine inspections in 2003, according to a spokesman for Ceres Hellenic, the Greek management company that operates the vessel. No problems were found in January, and five minor deficiencies were found in October, including a defective shower and an outdated log book.

Most of the ethanol that spewed from the tanker as a result of the explosion in the ship's bow has evaporated, the Coast Guard said. But a large amount of oil and diesel fuel was floating in the huge slick. Oil fuel, which is much thicker than diesel fuel, often congeals into "tar balls" in the water, which can float and wash up on shore.

Using computer models, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted that tidal currents will push the oily residue away from Maryland and Virginia shores. Out in the Atlantic, wave action, sunlight and air exposure will break down the slick, officials said.

Still, Maryland environmental officials were remaining in contact with the Coast Guard and NOAA, and will continue to monitor the cleanup for days to come, said Mike Sharon, chief of the emergency response division of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

"It is our job to keep a close eye on the spill should fortunes shift," he said. "If something were to happen in Assateague, it would be difficult to clean up because the environment there is so fragile. But we don't expect there to be a problem."

A Virginia-based cleanup ship was dispatched to the disaster area yesterday, Crooks said. The ship is owned and operated by Marine Spill Response Corp., a nonprofit organization financed by petroleum transport firms operating in U.S. waters.

Sharon said MSRC is a "first-class" operation, with regional response centers in the Pacific Northwest, California, Texas, Florida and Eastern seaboard.

The MSRC ship and its crew started scooping up oily residue at the accident scene almost immediately upon arrival, Crooks said.

"They are working to recover what they can," he said, adding that some of the fuel may never be recovered because it is too deep under water to be retrieved. The accident occurred in an area where water depths reach 250 feet, officials said.

"We have limited choices here," Crooks said. "It's too early to say how much of the fuel can be collected."

Coast Guard aircraft will tour the accident scene daily in search of the telltale "rainbow sheen" of a fuel slick. "Every day the sheen will disperse further," Crooks said.

If Coast Guard officials find that fuel is still leaking from the submerged tanker, efforts could be made to seal the leak, he said. Another option - although much more expensive - would be to remove the remaining fuel.

In instances when heavy fuels are exposed to cold waters, the fuel tends to cool and become gelatinous, Crooks said. "That may prevent the fuel from bubbling to the surface," he said.

Crooks said it is unclear what happened to the missing crew members. Survivors said yesterday that they were the last to leave the ship before it sank into the Atlantic, bow first.

"That is what they said, but the ship went down very quickly and there was no time to do a full search of the ship," he said.

When asked if some of the crew were trapped in the ship as it sank to the bottom of the ocean, Crooks said, "We will probably never know."

Retrieving the tanker from the ocean floor would be cost-prohibitive, Crooks said. "The ship will probably stay there."

The Associated Press and Sun staff writer Chris Guy contributed to this article.

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