Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Salvage crew boards stricken ship

Container ship Rena stuck aground on a reef off the coast of Tauranga, New Zealand (AP)

A salvage crew finally boarded a cargo ship that has spilled hundreds of tons of oil since striking a reef off New Zealand.

Workers are racing against time to assess whether oil could be pumped from the ship before the vessel broke up.

Heavy seas had kept the team away for days, but a break in the weather allowed three crew members to be winched aboard the Liberian-flagged Rena, which ran aground on October 5 on Astrolabe Reef, 14 miles from Tauranga Harbour on New Zealand's North Island.

Several of the 88 containers that fell off the deck of the 775ft vessel had washed ashore by Wednesday. The vessel has been fractured by a large crack and has been listing in the stormy ocean.

The crew was checking the stability of the ship and whether it was even still possible to pump out the remaining oil, said Steve Jones, spokesman for Maritime New Zealand, which is managing the emergency response.

Officials were trying to find out whether a heating system that is needed to liquefy the oil before it can be pumped out is still working, he said.

A vertical crack in the ship that the maritime agency described as a "substantial structural failure" runs around the entire vessel - meaning the ship is now only held together by its internal components, Mr Jones said. "The reality is the vessel could break up at any point," he said. "Conditions are very calm out at the moment. ... If we're going to get oil off before the ship breaks up, today's the day."

The piles of containers that remain on deck have continued to move, making it dangerous for salvage crews to work on board. Six vessels have been mobilised to intercept the drifting containers and other debris in the water. The maritime agency has predicted more containers will topple off as the ship continues to shift.

There were 1,368 containers on board, 11 of which contained hazardous substances, Maritime New Zealand said. One of the hazardous containers is among those that have fallen overboard, Jones said.

The ship's 44-year-old Filipino captain has been charged with operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk and was released on bail at Tauranga District Court.

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