If the cutting chain continues to struggle with thick masses of steel inside the shipwrecked Golden Ray in the St. Simons Sound, the salvage team will turn to a backup plan that packs a punch.
The plan would include blasting through the 2-foot-thick steel obstacles with a contained and concentrated use of explosive, Unified Command announced Wednesday.
The precise term for the product is “low hazard flexible linear-shaped charges.” The devices pack a certain amount of the explosive RDX inside a foam casing. The resulting charge delivers a precisely aimed blast that makes precise cuts through steel obstacles, said U.S. Coast Guardsman Michael Himes.
T&T Salvage received the necessary permitting from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to employ such charges, Unified Command announced Wednesday. Use of the linear shaped charges also required National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration approval, Himes said.
As of now, salvors continue to use cutting chain to tear through what is known as Section 3 of the shipwreck, Himes said. There are no immediate plans to use the charges, he said.
The VB 10,000 resumed operations on Section 3 after midnight Wednesday using the twin-hulled crane vessel’s system of winches, wires and pulleys to pull the cutting chain up through the shipwreck along a designated cut path. That path has been stymied by thick steel brackets, which secure interior decks to steel girders inside the Golden Ray.
The fifth cut began on May 6, but the VB 10,000 had ceased cutting May 12 for maintenance due to equipment wear wrought by the 2-foot-thick steel brackets encountered along the cutting path. The giant pulleys that connect the two ends of the cutting chains were switched out with a fresh set of pulleys. The churning strain of the chain tearing its way through such thick steel masses causes wear on the pulleys that connect both ends of the cutting chain to the VB 10,000’s complex cutting apparatus, Himes said.
Salvors are about 75 percent complete with the fifth cut. Should the cutting chain get hung up again with the steel masses, salvors can employ the linear-shaped charges to cut through the steel, Himes said.
The charges are not a threat to the environment or the public, Himes said. They would be used in the interior of the shipwreck, above the waterline, he said.
It would not present a significant fire threat since the explosive charge is enclosed in foam and would be aimed directly into the steel, he said. Noise should be minimal. A blast lasts between 12 and 20 milliseconds and is concentrated into a cutting line along the steel, he said.
The charge would be used to eliminate obstacles, but the chain will still have to complete its churning path through the shipwreck to complete the separation of Section 3.
“It’s a contingency plan,” Himes said. “The preferred method is to continue using the cutting chain. It does have an explosive in it, but it’s designed not to create debris. The charge is covered in foam. It creates a gas jet that goes right into the line and severs the steel.”
The transport and handling of the charges would be conducted by federally licensed explosives experts, Himes said. Salvors would have to pause the cutting chain to allow the charges to be set.
“Low hazard flexible linear-shaped charges are another industry-standard, high-precision cutting tool,” said T&T President Mauricio Garrido. “We’ve added it to our list of approved pre-cutting methods in order to sever any heavily reinforced steel obstructions from the cutting chain path on an as-needed basis.”
Rope access technicians (RATs) suspended from rappel lines have used 6-foot-long cutting torches to make precise cuts around the brackets. Such work was being conducted May 14 when a cutting torch sparked a massive fire, which burned through hundreds of vehicles in the shipwreck’s cargo hold and shut down cutting operations for nearly two weeks.
The explosive charges would actually be a safer solution, said U.S. Coast Guard Commander Efren Lopez, the federal on-scene coordinator with Unified Command.
“Safety is our highest priority,” Lopez said. “By using the cutting charges, we can greatly reduce any safety risks to our personnel when accessing the interior of the wreck to clear any obstructions while continuing a removal operation that safeguards the community and the environment.”
The 656-foot-long Golden Ray overturned Sept. 8, 2019, while heading out to sea with cargo of 4,200 vehicles. Four sections have been removed by the cutting chain since November, leaving about 300 feet of the shipwreck remaining in the sound.