Freighter's bow sinks into Bering Sea; fuel on board presumed lost

Friday, December 24th 2004, 6:04 am
By: News On 6

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ Days after violent storms forced cleanup crews to leave a freighter that split apart, a salvage team returned Thursday to find the bow section had sunk, likely spilling another 176,000 gallons of oil near an environmentally sensitive area of Unalaska Island.

Crews still plan to unload more than 80,000 gallons of fuel from tanks in the stern of the Selendang Ayu. But the three biggest tanks _ totaling 321,058 gallons of oil _ are believed to be ruptured and the fuel inside lost, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Sara Francis.

The ship was split in two after running aground Dec. 8 in the Aleutian chain. The 738-foot freighter was carrying soybeans, 424,000 gallons of fuel oil and 18,000 gallons of diesel.

The bow section had earlier been judged unsafe and attempts to unload its fuel were halted until a salvage team could come up with a plan to recover that oil.

``It appears that the tank ... which we had previously had hope of recovering all its oil from, has probably lost all its contents,'' said Marti Early of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The ship ran aground near sensitive wildlife habitat that supports sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, tanner crabs and halibut.

A shoreline cleanup effort recovered more than 100 bags of oily waste before the weather forced crews to suspend the operation. Forty oil-covered birds _ 20 alive and 20 dead _ and a dead sea otter have been recovered so far.

The process of removing fuel from the stern section in 2,000-gallon containers was to begin after the new year.

The weather Thursday gave response officials a brief reprieve, but winds Friday were expected to increase again to 35 knots and seas up to 10 feet.

The Selendang Ayu was hauling soybeans to China when it grounded into a shoal after drifting for nearly two days. Six crew members were lost at sea when a Coast Guard rescue helicopter crashed soon after lifting them off the freighter. Eighteen other crew members were safely evacuated.