Leaping flames, falling cars, tearing steel — all set amid a herculean showdown between a resolute army and a colossal monster.
No, this is not the season’s big box office blockbuster, not that folks could find a movie house open to show it in this pandemic-challenged summer.
This is what to expect next month when the monumental, complex, precarious and, yes, dangerous task begins to finally remove the shipwrecked Golden Ray from the St. Simons Sound. So said leaders of Unified Command, who gave a waterfront tour Thursday of the bustle of activity surrounding the 656-foot vessel.
The Golden Ray has sat half-submerged in the sound’s swift-flowing currents since September when it overturned while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles.
U.S. Coast Guard Commander Norm Witt said the objective has not changed since day one. That is the safety of the workers, protection of the environment, the free flow of commerce to the Port of Brunswick and the full removal of the Golden Ray. But come mid-July, as 400-foot-long chains begin shearing the vessel’s hull into eight pieces, powered by a 255-foot-high crane barge, the above scenarios are all but inevitable, said Chris Grof Gallagher Marine Systems.
“We expect fires, noise, debris and a discharge of oil,” said Graff, Gallagher’s director of response services. “This isn’t a flawless operation, but we’ve done everything possible to prepare for it.”
And a plethora of still more preparations surrounded the shipwreck Thursday. These included junk recovery, pollution control and firefighting teams rehearsing in preparation for the real thing, as well as the final touches going into the 5,000 feet of protection barrier that encircles the Golden Ray. On the latter note, a 100-foot swath of mesh net dangled in the air above the waterline, hanging from a chain attached to a crane towering above a Weeks Marine barge.
“This is where they have the last net going in,” said Coast Guard Commander Efren Lopez.
The 28 net panels are 35 to 65 feet deep, each specifically designed for its place in the barrier. The net extends from the bottom to well above the water’s surface. The net’s spaces are 5-foot squares, large enough to allow marine critters safe passage but small enough to catch a careening Kia spilling from inside the vessel. The nets are spaced between 40 pairs of 140-foot-long piles, each driven half their length into the sound’s sand bed. Polymer pipes run along the surface from pile to pile, attached to buoys that rise and fall with the tides.
A stream of bobbing floats trailed behind a boat nearby, where crews inflated each new section as it was spooled off the bow. This was the final stretch of the 42-inch boom that is attached to the polymer pipes and intended to catch floating oil and other pollutants that leak out when the cutting begins.
On the other side of the barrier, guys at the bow of yet another specially-designed boat reached out to scoop beach balls from inside the barrier with long-handled nets. They were not playing games, however – this was the floating debris team going through its drills known as DART (Debris Assessment Recovery Team).
Work on the barrier began in late February, when the first pile was driven in the sand bed.
“We’ve known from the beginning that dismantling a ship of this size is going to be a messy proposition,” Witt said. “In order to do everything we can to mitigate the environmental impacts, we’ve designed an environmental protection barrier specifically for this environment.”
For all the hubbub surrounding the Golden Ray, the up close view of the transformations to the shipwreck itself were more telling. They are called lifting lugs, but the 16 steel structures affixed to the exposed starboard hull look more like a line of defense bunkers. Each is specifically designed to distribute the weight for its spot on the hull – two lifting lugs per section.
Already in place at regular increments between these are the chains that will do the cutting.
“The cuts are going to be made by large sections of anchor chain,” Witt said. “We say ‘cut’ but it’s really going to be a ripping process through the hull.”
The seven chains were placed in specific locations on the hull, fed through crane-bored holes in the seabed beneath the Golden Ray. Divers attached the chains to awaiting cranes on the other side to complete the process. Each chain link weighs 80 pounds, is 18 inches long and 8 inches across.
To complete the big picture, imagine a structure taller than the road surface of the Sidney Lanier Bridge straddling the shipwreck. That would be the VB 10,000, the dual-hulled arching crane barge that will do the cutting and lifting. The VB 10,000 will arrive from Texas in July, entering the barrier through a gate on the seaward side that will be closed off with netting afterward.
Winches on the VB 10,000 will power the chains as they tear through the hull. Each cut will take about 24 hours, a process that cannot stop until completed once it commences. This should be an exceptionally loud process, particularly when the chains progress above the water’s surface in each cut.
“That is not going to be quiet,” Graff said. “We don’t know how loud it’s going to be. It’s never been done before. We anticipate it will be loud.”
Fire hoses aboard barges will be trained on the ship from both sides during the cutting, as well as another hose set overhead, Lope said. Additionally, saltwater will be pumped onto the chains continuously once the cutting stage progresses above water, he said.
“We expect fires to happen,” Graff said. “Our teams have been practicing their firefighting capabilities. Our fire teams are ready to go.”
After each cut is complete, chains attached to that section’s two lifting lugs will hoist the piece onto an awaiting barge. Crews anticipate everything from floating debris to entire vehicles to be vibrated loose during the cutting and lifting process.
“This is a vehicle carrier,” Witt said. “We know we’re going to drop some vehicles as we start cutting and removing pieces of the ship.”
More than 330,000 gallons of the estimated 380,000 gallons in the Golden Ray’s fuel tanks were pumped out in the months immediately following the disaster. That estimate does not include several gallons of gas in each vehicle in the cargo hold, as well as oil and other automotive fluids.
“We expect oil to be released,” Graff said.
That environmental protection barrier’s booms are intended to catch floating fuel and funnel it toward a current buster, machines strategically located at two points on the barrier to scoop up pollutants borne on the swift tides. Oil skimmer boats and shoreline protection crews will be on the ready throughout. Oil booms surrounding environmentally sensitive areas nearby also will be in place.
The DART teams will be ready catch floating debris. The net is in place to stop cars, chunks of steel and other sinking pieces. Underwater imaging technology will track sunken pieces within the barrier. Cranes and trawlers will be in place to pluck these pieces from the water.
Witt hopes they can cut and remove one section of the ship per week, completing the process in eight weeks. This timeframe anticipates wiggle room for lots of big “ifs,” driven by everything from weather to the whims of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have seen some delays and I think we’ll see more delays,” Witt said. “But we’re looking at a mid-July start and a mid-September completion. I think we can get several pieces out before mid-August, before the peak hurricane season arrives here. We’re looking to get everything done in calendar year 2020 and I think we’re still tracking toward that.”
Working toward that goal are some 300 men and women. When the cutting and lifting begin next month, that workforce will rise to about 400 people.
Among those is Farrell Lafont, a south Louisiana native with a Cajun accent to match. On the trip back, the easygoing Lafont shrugged off a tough question.
“You see these boots, how dirty they are? I don’t make decisions,” he said, laughing.
Do not let the easygoing nature fool you. Lafont is Gallagher’s response specialist, the man who oversees those crews doing the hard work on the water. He is tough.
Lafont was on the job earlier this year when he learned his prostate cancer had returned. He refused to stand down, going through six weeks of radiation treatment at Southeast Georgia Health System’s Brunswick hospital. And getting right back on the water.
“I beat it,” Lafont said, pumping his fist.
No, the unfathomably large and complex undertaking shaping up on the St. Simons Sound is no mere summer blockbuster. But if guys like Lafont have their way, this thing will have a happy ending.
“I see this coming out very successful,” he said. “I think when we leave here, we’re going out as the heroes of Georgia’s coast, the ones who kept the shores clean. That’s my sole goal here. To walk away from Georgia feeling good about what we did here. Mission accomplished.”