The removal of the shipwrecked Golden Ray is now on hold, suspended due to COVID-19 precautions and concerns of the area’s impending peak hurricane season.

Unified Command decided this week to “pause” for at least two months the much-anticipated final phase of the process to get the 656-foot ship out of the St. Simons Sound. With almost all of the complex pieces of the unprecedented demolition project in place, Unified Command conceded this week that an internal COVID-19 outbreak and inclement weather concerns warranted the work stoppage. Unified Command said it hopes to resume at the start of October.

“We’re looking at the beginning of October,” said Tom Wiker of Gallagher Marine Systems, one of Unified Command’s three entities. “We haven’t set a firm date but we’re using Oct. 1 as a start date for cutting and lifting operations.”

Unified Command’s plan remains is to cut the massive freighter in eight parts, each of which will be hauled from the sound via barge. The 5,000-foot-perimeter environmental protection barrier is in place, encircling the shipwreck to contain large debris and any of the 4,200 vehicles in the Golden Ray’s cargo hold that may shake loose when cutting begins. The 255-foot-tall dual-hulled VB 10,000 crane barge sits anchored offshore from nearby Fernandina Beach, Fla., awaiting to the call to come straddle the shipwreck and begin cutting it up and hauling away.

The ship has sat overturned on its starboard side for more than 10 months, having capsized between the resort islands of St. Simons and Jekyll in the pre-dawn hours of Sept. 8 while heading out to sea with its cargo of several thousand vehicles.

Unified Command had originally hoped to have the bulk of the ship removed from the sound before the peak of hurricane season. However, delays that included a COVID-19 outbreak among project crew members earlier this month put that timeline out of reach. Coastal Georgia’s inclement summertime weather tendencies and the looming hurricane season also affected the project, Wiker said.

Unified Command consists of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marine Systems. It is responsible for ensuring that the demolition protect adheres to the environmental protection standards established by the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990. T&T Salvage of Texas is conducting the Golden Ray’s actual demolition, contracted by the ship’s owner and insurer.

A COVID-19 outbreak first emerged early this month, with nine crew members testing positive for the virus, as reported by The News. To date, a total of 10 crew members have tested positive for the virus. It has resulted in the quarantine of 50 members of the project, from Unified Command personnel to demolition contractors, Wiker said. Those quarantined included a salvage master and a specialized crane operator, he said.

The worldwide pandemic has affected additional aspects of the project, including the equipment supply chain and incoming personnel, he said. All incoming members of Unified Command and salvage workers must undergo a 14-day self-quarantine before reporting to work, he said.

Heavy weather and the prospect of hurricanes hitting the area also contributed to the decision. Inclement weather, including high winds and lightning storms, have prompted 70 work stoppages on the Golden Ray, he said.

“Separately the impacts are difficult to manage, but together they present a more unique challenge,” Wiker said. “Unified Command has made the very difficult decision to pause operations.”

More from this section

At least 300 boats sailed from Brunswick to Jekyll Island and St. Simons Saturday in the TrumPalooza, a rally to support the president’s re-election that included a parade of thundering motorcycles and thousands watching from the roadsides and shore.