100319_ship 3

The Golden Ray sits in the St. Simons Sound in October.

Take a back entrance to the Glynn Place Mall, cut through a side door into the lobby of the Embassy Suites hotel, walk up a flight of stairs and you enter the inner sanctum of Unified Command.

That is, you can enter if you possess the proper credentials to get past the big Coast Guardsman at the folding table beside the entrance door. Or, if you are a reporter with The News who is accompanied by the U.S. Coast Guard’s Norm Witt, Gallagher Marine Systems’ Chris Graff and half dozen other key players in the mission to remove the shipwrecked Golden Ray from the St. Simons Sound.

The walls inside this spacious room are lined with nautical maps of local waters, various diagrams of the vessel and an orderly plethora of duty rosters, reference papers and acronym-laden data sheets. Some 50 people in the spacious room ignore our entrance, consumed by the work in front of them at nearly a dozen tables.

Structural engineers pore over documents at one table while organizational gurus tap into information at another. At a big table up front, the faces of international, national and state environmental scientists peer into glowing computer screens.

“I think this speaks to the overall complexity of the response here,” said Witt, nodding to the table where a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist worked beside a peer from the ITOPF (International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation).

We step out of the room quietly, our departure as unacknowledged as our arrival.

The Unified Command’s makeshift headquarters here have been like this since shortly after Sept. 8, when the Golden Ray capsized in the St. Simons Sound while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles. The command center occupies this entire floor of the Embassy Suites, as well as an empty storefront downstairs in the adjoining mall. Work goes on here seven days a week.

“Every day’s a Monday,” U.S. Coast Guard Commander Matt Baer quipped on Wednesday.

Down the hall, the numbers crunchers have converted a second-floor hotel room into the command’s finance department. Still farther down the hall we file into what amounts to a “war room,” where still more maps, charts and diagrams flank a large table that occupies the center of the room.

And here the Unified Command offered a candid assessment of the monumental task ahead, while confirming some scenarios that might finally bring about the ship’s removal. (The Unified Command consists of the U.S. Coast Guard, the state Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marine Systems.)

The Golden Ray will have to be cut into pieces, said Coast Guard Commander Witt, the command’s on-scene coordinator. This will most certainly involve huge cranes pulling carbide steel-toothed cable saws up through the Golden Ray’s hull, dismantling it in sections. This would be similar to the dismantling of the car carrier Tricolor after it sunk in the English Channel in 2002, a process The News chronicled in its Oct. 26 edition.

“You’re gonna see cranes here, there’s no doubt about it,” Witt said. “And there’s going to be some type of cutting.”

“Ultimately, it has to be cut up,” added Baer, the command’s deputy incident commander.

Additionally, the Unified Command confirmed it is seriously considering constructing a wall around the Golden Ray, after which water would be drained from the inside. Providing a dry work environment would greatly reduce chances of oil and other liquids polluting surrounding waters, Witt said. The Brunswick News confirmed on Oct. 30 that Unified Command had discussed permitting issues for a cofferdam with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Unified Command would not directly address the possibility of such a containment structure at the time that article appeared.

“That’s definitely on the table,” Witt said of a possible cofferdam.

“A cofferdam or some sort of hard barrier like that is definitely an option that is being looked at,” said Graff, a California-based director of response services for Gallagher Marine Systems.

Meanwhile, crews aboard the Golden Ray are continuing the ship’s lightering, a process of pumping oil from the vessel’s fuel tanks onto awaiting barges. Unified Command first estimated about 300,000 gallons of thick bunker oil on board the Golden Ray back in late September, but recent adjusted estimates put the fuel inside the ship at 383,000 gallons. As of Wednesday, crews had removed some 317,000 gallons of oil from the ship.

Reaching the ship’s 12 fuel oil tanks to drain them is tricky business, precarious even. There are four tanks in the bow of the hull and eight in the stern. The deck surfaces that would be flat walking space under normal circumstances are now vertical hazards, obstacles that must be scaled rather than traversed. (There are at least a dozen additional tanks onboard containing various other grades of fuel that also are being addressed by Unified Command.)

And, depending on the tides, the task can require a scuba diving excursion or a rope climbing exercise, Witt said. Coastal Georgia experiences some of the most extreme tide differentials on the U.S. eastern seaboard.

“Depending on the tide cycle, we could have divers going down, or we may be rappelling down to the tanks,” he said. “That’s how crazy the tide is here. We’re wandering blind, sideways and upside down in there sometimes.”

Divers had to resort to other precarious options as well. “In some cases, the divers have had to go through the ballast tanks,” Witt said. “They’re diving into the ballast tanks and the engine room to reach the fuel tanks.”

When the lightering stage of the mission is complete, there will still be small amount of fuel in the tanks, Witt noted. “We know there’s product left in those tanks,” Witt said. “We pump out as much as we can, then we seal them.”

A good amount of the bunker oil was transferred to another ship in the line of the company that owns the Golden Ray, Witt said. “They were able to reuse a large volume of it,” he said. “They loaded it onto a sister ship.”

The lightering oil and the removal of the ship is being conducted by Donjon-Smit, an American/Dutch company that specializes in salvaging, lightering and maritime firefighting services. The company has been on the scene since day one, called into action by the ship’s insurer, North of England P&I Association. Donjon-Smit played a key role in the rescue of the Golden Ray’s four trapped crewmen, who were plucked from a hole cut out of the hull some 38 hours after the ship capsized.

“They were called immediately,” Graff said. “They were involved in the rescue portion. Now they’re still involved in the wreck portion of it.”

And make no mistake. Even in the highly-technical vernacular within Unified Command, the Golden Ray is a wreck. Though the word salvage may still be bandied about at times, this operation is strictly a “wreck removal,” Witt said.

Salvage or wreck removal, Unified Command’s primary goal is the same: pollution control. This means cleaning up after the oil that has spilled into the local marine environment and acting to prevent further pollution as a result of the shipwreck. The steps taken are laid out in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Congress passed the act in response to the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, when the tanker hit a reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into the surrounding waters.

“We’re doing a lot of talking about salvaging and wreck removal,” Witt said. “But ultimately, our purpose here is pollution response. Removing the entire ship is how we’re going to trying to address the pollution threat.”

Gallagher Marine Systems acts as liaison for the ship’s owner, insuring compliance with the Oil Pollution Act. “The marsh is right there, and that is not acceptable to have any oil spills at all,” Graff said. “We and the insured and all of us have stressed that from the beginning.”

Oil and other pollutants leaked from the shipwreck almost from the start. Altamaha Riverkeeper representatives and Unified Command cleanup crews detected oil in the marshes and waters around the Frederica, Back and MacKay rivers as well as Lanier, Bird and Quarantine islands.

Then there were significant leaks from the Golden Ray on Sept. 27 and Sept. 30, further spreading oil along the south side of the Brunswick River and as far inland as Blythe Island. All total, oil washed up on some 25 miles of inland shoreline, according to the DNR.

Unified Command responded with dozens of boats and hundreds of workers, employing surface oil skimmer boats and thousands of miles of absorbent and surface barrier booms in local waters. Workers with the SCAT (Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Team) teams also applied an absorbent sphagnum moss-based spray on oiled marsh grasses.

The leaking vents on the Golden Ray have since been sealed, and there have been no significant leaks from ship since late September. SCAT crews have cleaned the marsh and shorelines to the point where it is now best to let Mother Nature take it from here, said James Ragan of the DNR’s Environmental Protection Division.

“The environment is very resilient and cleans itself up more efficiently in some instances,” said Ragan, the command’s Georgia on-scene coordinator.

“If it would be more damaging to clean it up, we’re not going to interfere,” added Baer.

That said, SCAT crews are still out combing the marshes, shorelines and waterways. Additional SCAT crews remain on standby if a more vigorous response is required.

“In some cases they’re still out there, just walking around and picking up a single tiny shell that is covered in oil,” Ragan said.

But Unified Command knows it will not find the definitive answer to pollution control and prevention in tiny seashells. The real answer is 656-feet long and weighs 25,000 tons. And that pollution problem will require some heavy maritime machinery — cranes, barges, platforms perhaps. And some powerful saws.

The approach quite likely will also include surrounding the ship in a dry space within a cofferdam — typically made of interlocking corrugated steel sheets driven into the seabed and reinforced with support beams to withstand with outside water pressure.

“The size of the crane will depend on what can be sourced,” Witt said. “How quick can we can get something here and how far away does it have to come to get here. Obviously, less cuts would be preferred. If you have to cut less times, that makes it a lot easier on a lot of fronts. Fewer cuts and fewer lifts is desirable.”

The Golden Ray was not built to wallow half submerged in currents that flow swiftly back and forth to the rising and falling rhythms of our twice-daily tide cycles, Witt said. The shipwreck’s position on the sound’s bottom has shifted slightly, from a 90 degree angle to a 100 degree angle, officials said. In addition to the 6,000 tons of aggregate rock placed around its hull earlier this month, crews this week are placing anchors and chains on the ship to increase stability.

“It’s not moving, but the list is increasing,” Witt said. “It’s more of a crunching than a rolling. Some of the decks are actually starting to fold up a little bit. We’re constantly trying to evaluate it.”

Donjon-Smit is still finalizing its plans on exactly what steps will be taken to remove the wreck of the Golden Ray. Such a plans should not be subjected to significant changes once the operation is under way, Graff said

“That’s what’s so important,” he said. “To really do it right, we need to really do our research to make sure it’s done right the first time. That’s why we’re investing the time and energy to do it right.”

So, how long will all this take?

“We would be happy to finish it off in 2020,” Graff said.

Through a back entrance to the Glynn Place Mall, a side door leads to the lobby of the Embassy Suites motel, where a walk up a flight of stairs leads to the inner sanctum of Unified Command. Every day is a Monday here until they get it done.

“And it’s a very complex problem,” Baer said.

More from this section

Entering this week, scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced people spotted at least five female North Atlantic right whales so far, in the traditional calving waters off the South Atlantic states, including Harmonia, which last gave birth in 2016 and was…