Plan to cut up capsized cargo ship has roots in previous disasters

In the early morning fog about 2 a.m. on Dec. 14, 2002, a container ship from Bermuda collided with a car carrier vessel, sending the massive ship and more than 2,800 cars to the bottom of the English Channel. The sinking of the Tricolor lasted only 30 minutes, but its removal from one of the world’s busiest shipping channels would take two years, involve cutting the ship into nine pieces and come at a cost of more than $40 million, making it one of the most referenced maritime disasters of the past two decades.

When local officials announced in October that the Golden Ray, the car carrier that has been sitting on its side in the St. Simons Sound since Sept. 8, would also be removed by cutting it into pieces, the fate of the ship and its cargo was clear. "Salvage means to save. The point is to save property. When they announced they were cutting it up … they are not trying to save anything," said Richard Burke, ABS Professor of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering at Maritime College, State University of New York. "Then it becomes a wreck removal."

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It’s expected to take several weeks to remove the Golden Ray from the St. Simons Sound, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Georgia Ports Authority spokesman Robert Morris said an incident like this is the first of its kind for a vessel at either the Brunswick or Savannah ports. 

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Each year, there are about 1,000 serious shipping casualties worldwide, according to a 2013 report from Lloyd’s, the insurer which began its business with maritime insurance. It has been a particularly tough year for car carriers, a type of vessel that falls under the class of Roll-on, Roll-off (RoRo) ships designed to carry wheeled cargo. Industry experts have debated safety concerns of RoRos for years, including stability challenges and fire safety issues, and salvors have learned how to deal with the ships when they are lost.

The 656-foot Golden Ray overturned near the Port of Brunswick carrying 24 crew members and a cargo of 4,200 cars. The port is the second-largest hub in the U.S. for the import and export of vehicles, and the Golden Ray was on its way to Baltimore with cargo destined for the Middle East.

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When a fire broke out on board, all but four crew members evacuated. The remaining crewmen were trapped for more than a day until rescuers drilled through the hull to reach them. Investigators are still trying to determine what caused the fire and why the vessel lost stability.

In mid-October, the recovery team determined they could not safely right and refloat the vessel intact and began developing plans to remove the Golden Ray’s hull, components and cargo from the water by disassembling the ship in place.

The Golden Ray is the sixth major car carrier incident in 2019, according to reports from Tradewinds, an international shipping newspaper based in London. Like the Golden Ray, each of the other carriers experienced fires on board. “There is a lot of similarity between the incidents. There are a lot of fires or stability problems. Those are the two big problems that car carriers have,” said Adam Corbett, reporter for Tradewinds. Overheated cars can ignite from their electrical components, and because there is nothing to separate the cars inside the ship, fire can spread quickly, he said.

The Grimaldi vessel Grande America was on fire in the Bay of Biscay, off the west coast of France, on March 11, 2019. French authorities worked to contain an oil spill off the Atlantic Coast after the Italian tanker sank following a fire. French and British rescue teams saved all 27 people aboard the Grande America tanker after it sank. 

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Of the car carrier incidents this year, only the Golden Ray and the Grande America, which caught fire and sank off the coast of France in March, appear to be total losses. Cutting the vessel into pieces, often considered a last resort, is particularly tragic for the Golden Ray, a relatively new and well-maintained ship built in 2017, owned by Hyundai Glovis, the shipping division of Hyundai based in Seoul, South Korea.

The loss is likely to cost the ship’s insurer between $70 million and $80 million, according to Tradewinds. Cargo is insured separately and may add up to $80 million to the claim. Costs for the initial emergency response and pollution control are the responsibility of ship owners, but the final wreck removal could cost tens of millions of dollars for the insurer covering the legal liability of the owner and crew.

Methods for wreck removal

SMIT, the Dutch company which helped remove the Tricolor, and DonJon Marine are the designated salvage partners for the Golden Ray, officials confirmed to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. SMIT did not respond to requests for comment. With removal plans expected later this month, the Coast Guard and partners began placing rocks next to the hull of the ship to prevent erosion of the sand underneath it and to stabilize the vessel. They also used laser technology to view inside the cargo hold, which has been inaccessible to divers.

More than a decade ago, the removal of the ill-fated Tricolor from the English Channel was one of the largest wreck removal operations of its time. The 24 crew members managed to escape before the ship ended up submerged on its side in the English Channel. As with the Golden Ray, the salvage team spent about two months removing most of the fuel from the sunken ship to minimize environmental damage and prepare the vessel for removal.

A part of the sunken Norwegian-registered tanker Tricolor was lifted out of the water as about 200 salvage experts began the delicate work of retrieving the Tricolor from the floor of the English Channel on Aug. 3, 2003. The Norwegian-owned ship, which sank in December 2002 while hauling a load of luxury cars, was chopped up into nine pieces as part of a tricky procedure to lift the vessel out of the world’s busiest sea lane. 

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Four companies collaborated on plans to cut the ship into nine pieces that would be lifted from the water one by one. It was the first time a ship of its size was being cut in place, according to SMIT. They used a cutting wire that consisted of small cylinders coated with a special type of steel as hard as diamond. The wire had been used only once before, in the removal of a Russian submarine.

Cutting the ship from the bottom up involved moving the wire back and forth between two platforms erected on either side of the Tricolor. Divers monitored the cutting to be sure the vessel did not shift, and they attached lifting cables to the pieces. Some of the largest floating lifting devices in the world were required to pull each cut section of the ship out of the water and onto a barge. Six months after the Tricolor sank, it was finally being lifted from the water. The last step was to transfer the sections by barge to a special scrap yard.

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The method would be repeated again in 2012 with a slight tweak when another car carrier, the Baltic Ace, collided with a container ship near the Dutch coast. The ship sank within 15 minutes, and 11 of its 24 crew members were lost. Once the decision was made to cut the ship in place, SMIT (by then part of Royal Boskalis Westminster) used floating barges to develop an automated cutting process.

Both the Tricolor and Baltic Ace lost their entire cargo of cars in incidents that resulted in millions in losses.

Environmental concerns

Cutting the hull of a vessel into manageable sections is a common method used in wreck removal, but car carriers can present a unique challenge. “Cutting in place doesn’t mean you are doing huge damage to the environment, but it means you have to pay extra attention,” said Burke. “It is a problem with a car carrier because every bit of cargo has gasoline and oil in it.”

Since the Golden Ray ran aground off the coast of Georgia, workers have used several strategies to try to contain and monitor oil coming from the ship. Still, some leaks occurred even as officials worked to remove more than 250,000 gallons of fuel from the vessel. Fuel has been spotted along more than 30 miles of shorelineand there have been reports of oiled birds, said local environmentalists.

Environmental advocates are concerned that two possible fires on board the Golden Ray may have created toxicity on board. Site workers recently observed white smoke coming from the vents of the Golden Ray though it was unclear if a fire was burning inside, said a spokesperson for the Unified Command, which includes the U.S. Coast Guard, state officials, Gallagher Marine Systems and other partners. Responders directed water to the area of smoke, which later cleared.

“I am really concerned about the toxins that will come out of the cargo hold when they open that thing up, not just to the sea life but to the air,” said Fletcher Sams, of the Altamaha Riverkeeper. “The constituents are a lot of things you don’t want in the St. Simons Sound.”

Each wreck removal is unique and salvors often have to adjust their plans as the operation is underway. While there may be new developments in technique, cutting a ship in pieces is a process salvors know well, Burke said. “There is nothing new or magical about the cutting up operations. That is something they know how to do; it is something they have done for centuries,” he said.

And when it is done, the Golden Ray will likely become just another story in maritime history.