Golden Ray

The sun rises on the Golden Ray, as seen from U.S. Highway 17 in Brunswick on Thursday.

The VB 10,000 crane vessel could begin yanking an anchor chain up through the engine section of the shipwrecked Golden Ray as early as today, presenting a host of messy dilemmas for the salvage team.

Of course, this goes for the first two cuts into the half-submerged shipwreck in the St. Simons Sound and will apply to the four cuts that will follow. They are all crucial cuts.

“Each removal is unique, and we treat it as such,” said U.S. Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesman for Unified Command. “There is the challenge of debris and oil discharges. But oil and debris are constants. It’s a challenge that we are preparing for, that we account for and that we will be prepared to address immediately.”

That said, it bears repeating that this is the section that contains the engine room. All the fuel pipes running through the ship inevitably lead to the engine room. These fuel pipes contain possibly thousands of gallons of oil, according to Unified Command

The Golden Ray held an estimated 380,000 gallons of fuel in its tanks and lines when the 656-foot-long car carrier capsized in the sound on Sept. 8, 2019, with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles. Salvagers pumped some 320,000 gallons from the shipwreck during the final months of 2019.

Much of what remained is in the fuel lines and could not be accessed, Unified Command said.

“This section has the engine in it,” Himes said. “We are preparing for that. We don’t know for certain there will be more oil in this section, but we are prepared for a significant discharge."

Members of the Altamaha Riverkeeper will be monitoring potential oil discharges and the cleanup crews’ response.

“We expect to see a large release when the fuel trunk is severed,” said Susan Inman, coastkeeper for the environmental advocacy group. “Lessons learned from mitigating releases outside the EPB will hopefully improve response and protect the sound.”

The 255-foot-high, twin-hulled VB 10,000 moved into place astride the dwindling shipwreck over the weekend. It is positioned above the engine room section, which is now the rearmost section of the shipwreck.

The VB 10,000 will rip the chain up through ship section’s steel exterior and 12 interior decks by force of tension, applied by the crane vessel’s system of winches, pulleys, lifting beams and lifting blocks.

Salvors have busied themselves this week securing the VB 10,000’s mooring lines to a system of anchors in the sound, stabilizing it for the cutting operation.

Crews have drilled a series of holes along the projected cutting path on the section’s exterior. Rappelling crews drilled the holes on the exposed exterior of the ship. Divers drilled the holes beneath, their work limited to the short few hours of slack tide each day.

On Thursday, divers were working to place the anchor chain in alignment with the guiding holes and grooves along the cutting path.

“Once the chain has been moved into place, they’ll apply tension on the cutting chain,” Himes said Thursday afternoon. “And once they get the go-ahead, we will commence cutting. Tentatively, we’re looking at (Friday), or possibly Saturday.”

As always, weather and other unforeseen circumstances could delay the start time.

The shipwreck is surrounded by a one-mile-perimeter environmental protection barrier. This barrier features sturdy mesh netting below to catch stray vehicles and other loose debris.

A flotilla of more than 30 boats are crewed by trained environmental cleanup teams to collect escaping oil.

There were some significant oil discharges late last month during the cutting of the stern.

“We are fully equipped to respond to any discharges or debris that we observe as we cut and separate and lift and remove Section Seven (the engine room),” Himes said.

The engine section will be lifted and placed on the deck of barge 455-7, which arrived last week. Salvors estimate the engine section weighs approximately 100 metric tons less than the stern section.

Anyone who finds suspected shipwreck debris along the shorelines is asked to call 912-944-5620. Anyone who detects suspected oil leaks from the shipwreck is asked to call 800-424-8802.

Also Thursday, it was announced that the Golden Ray salvage team’s essential workers will continue to remain housed in isolation at Epworth By The Sea through May. The 100 or so workers have been living in sequestration at the 83-acre spiritual retreat and conference center since September in an effort to prevent exposure to COVID-19.

The facility is kept under guard, allowing no one in. Salvage crew members leave Epworth only to catch a boat on the Frederica River to be ferried to the shipwreck for work each day. Unified Command originally secured the facilities to house such workers through the first of the year. The stay was extended through March 31 back in November.

“We’re still looking at several months of wreck removal,” Himes said.

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