With plans now in place to cut a 656-foot shipwreck into pieces and haul all 25,000 tons of it out of the St. Simons Sound, Brunswick resident Bill Bulfer asked the question on that was on everybody’s mind Thursday at the Brunswick-Glynn County Library.
“What do y’all normally do?” he asked Chris Graff, a response director with Gallagher Marine Systems.
Graff, one of the key players in the Unified Command that is tasked with the shipwreck’s removal, did not hesitate to answer.
“This doesn’t normally happen,” Graff told him. “This is not easy — it’s very complicated.”
There is no standard operating procedure for removing a gargantuan freighter loaded with 4,200 vehicles from beside a shipping channel that runs between two resort islands.
This and other straight answers appeared to sit well with the hundreds of folks who streamed through the library’s conference room during an informal meet-and-greet with Unified Command.
The event came on the eve of initial efforts to remove the vessel Golden Ray, which has sat overturned in the sound since it capsized Sept. 8 while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles.
Unified Command hopes construction of a massive environmental protection barrier around the shipwreck can begin as early as next week and wrap by the end of March. Afterward, T&T Salvage Company will move in with America’s largest barge crane and begin the serious work of cutting, lifting and hauling the shipwreck out in pieces. The goal is to have most of shipwreck gone by June.
“I think we can get the bulk of the ship out before hurricane season,” said Coast Guard Commander Norm Witt, another key player with Unified Command.
Unified Command consists of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Coast Guard and Gallagher Marine. The command is responsible for pollution prevention and mitigation, in accordance with guidelines established by the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
Graff has been at the forefront of maritime disasters all over the country in his years with Gallagher Marine. But the situation here in the St. Simons Sound presented uncharted waters for him and others in Unified Command, he conceded. That is why experts have been consulted and recruited worldwide to orchestrate the plan that is now in place, he said.
“We think this is the best plan,” Graff said. “At the end of the day, our priorities are the same. First is the safety of the responders, next is to protect the environment, and then comes concerns of commerce. Those priorities stay in place.”
Thursday’s event had the air of an all-star science fair, featuring displays of gargantuan high-tech gizmos and uncommonly complex solutions. Visitors walked around a series of displays, videos, charts and timelines set up in the center of the room. Various folks from DNR, the Coast Guard and Gallagher Marine were on hand to answer questions. Also present was Salvage Master Jim Elliott of T&T Salvage, the company that ultimately is responsible for removing the shipwreck.
Snowbirders Anita and Wayne Lehker found themselves captivated by the detailed presentation of the big plans ahead.
“I’m really fascinated by this,” Anita Lehker said. “We’re really fascinated by big, technical things. And it doesn’t get bigger or more technical. And I really think they’re handling it well.”
St. Simons Islander Craig Johnson was sufficiently impressed by the presentation.
“I’m interested in learning more about what’s happened and what’s happening next,” he said. “I think it’s a pretty dedicated response. And I’m happy with the way they have been sharing information and not keeping it hidden. My lack of knowledge has been satisfied.”
Nora and Lou Ockey moved from Indiana to live full-time at their home on St. Simons just last August. Then the shipwreck occurred. Residents of the south end with a regular view of the sound, the couple has a vested interest in the Golden Ray saga.
“No. 1, it’s in our backyard, and you can’t miss it from the pier,” Nora Ockey said. “I’ve never seen anything like this. Of course we want to see the environment protected. It’s good to see them sharing information with the public so openly like this. I think it’s wise.”
A self-described “aqua-holic,” Bill Bulfer’s primary concern is protection of the inland waters he has fished for decades. Frank answers like the one Graff offered, as well as the plans moving forward, eased his worries.
“I wanted to see what they’re going to do about mitigating oil in our water,” Bulfer said. “These natural resources are a very big chunk of our economy. Like (Graff) said, it’s not the third of fourth one of these they’ve done this year. But I think it’s in good hands.”