Fire broke out inside what remains of the shipwrecked Golden Ray in the St. Simons Sound early Friday afternoon, possibly sparked by handheld welding torches used in precise cutting operations, said U.S. Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesman for Unified Command.
Within a couple of hours, five tugboats with firefighting capabilities had surrounded the half-submerged shipwreck, drowning the flames with thousands of gallons of saltwater siphoned from the sound, Himes said.
Though smoke continued billowing from the gaping western end of the 300-foot-long chunk of steel, salvors and Coast Guardsmen had the fire under control by 5 p.m., Himes said.
There were no injuries, Himes said. All but the salvage master and a skeleton crew of firefighters have been evacuated from the VB 10,000, the 255-foot-tall crane vessel that does the tough cutting and heavy lifting in what has been described as the largest marine salvage operation in U.S. history.
Thick dark clouds of smoke poured into the sky above the shipwreck when the fire started some time after 1 p.m. Hot orange flames could be seen flashing from openings in the shipwreck.
Welders suspended from rappelling lines had been conducting specific cuts just inside the cutting path of Section 3 when the fire started. Section 3 is at the eastern end of the shipwreck and is the focus of salvors’ current cutting operation.
Initially, “rope access technicians” aimed fire hoses through the opening cutting path to attack the fire, along with small Bear Cub boats with water cannon, Himes said.
As the fire grew larger, workers opened a gate to allow the larger tugboats inside the 1-mile perimeter environmental protection barrier that surrounds the shipwreck, Himes said. The barrier consists of sturdy mesh netting below and floating oil retention boom on the surface.
The tugs began pouring saltwater pumped from the sound into the shipwreck from all directions.
By 5 p.m., only a small plume of smoke could be seen emanating from the shipwreck’s western end.
“The salvage site is like a ship at sea,” Himes said. “Once a fire breaks out, everyone becomes a firefighter. We have tugs on scene now, four of ours and one from Moran Towing. They are inside the EBP and we are suppressing the fire with seawater.
“All crew members have been accounted for. The salvage master is still aboard the VB 10,000, per our protocol. It’s a possibility that the ignition source was the pre-cutting” being conducted by the welders, Himes added.
The massive cutting chain that is powered by the VB 10,000 was not in operation when the fire broke out, Himes said. Cutting with the chain and the VB 10,000 had been paused Thursday night to allow the R.A.T.s (rope access technicians) in for up-close cutting, he said.
This is the first significant fire on the shipwreck since cutting began in January, although Unified Command had cautioned last summer that fires could be commonplace once this phase of the salvage operation commenced. The last significant fire occurred in early 2020 when a vehicle in the cargo hold caught fire, likely due to a welder’s torch although the cause has not been determined, Himes said.
Once the all-clear is given, salvors will resume efforts to cut away Section 3, the fifth section to be removed from the shipwreck.
The 656-foot-long Golden Ray capsized on its port side Sept. 8, 2019, while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles.
“We may eventually discover what ignited this fire, but right now we’re more concerned with containing the fire and making sure everything and everyone is safe,” Himes said. “We’re focusing on dealing with this and getting back to work.”
The cutting chain attached to the VB 10,000 paused Thursday to allow welders in to perform more intricate cuts while dangling from ropes along the shipwreck’s exposed sides.
The big chain has suffered no damage, wear or tear since cutting on Section 3 began May 6, he said. The experts at T&T Salvage would like to keep it that way.
That is why they put the cutting chain on hold and sent in the welders armed with 6-foot torches. The welders had already cut away large strips of exterior steel along the cutting path of Section 3 in what salvors termed “pre-cutting.”
As the chain advanced up through the shipwreck, engineers detected dense sections of support steel in the path ahead.
The welders are moving in with torches, cutting a slight angle in the path to expedite the cut and avoid damage or wear on the chain. The welders can actually climb just inside the previously-cut gaps of the cutting path and make more specific cuts up to 6 feet into its interior, he said.
Once these alterations are complete, the VB 10,000’s system of winches, wire rigging and pulleys will begin cycling the big chain again, Himes said.
“Cutting operations are continuing, although sometimes the cutting doesn’t involve the chain,” Himes said prior to the fire Friday.
“We’re also doing what we call precutting. Those precut strips are wide enough that a person can go inside, perch on a steel structure and be able to get another 6 feet of access to cut panels and other things.”
Several chain breaks occurred during the previous four cuts to remove sections of the shipwreck, which has been reduced to about 300 feet of steel now hardly recognizable as a vessel. Likewise, several 90-foot lengths of chain were replaced after salvors detected signs of wear.
Learning valuable lessons from those experiences, salvors have chosen to avoid heavy obstacles in the chain’s path where possible, Himes said.
“The chain on its current track will hit the supporting beam,” he said. “They’re cutting a slight deviation into the cut groove. It will be going at a little bit of an angle, then go vertical again. While we may pause the chain periodically, this is still cutting and it keeps the main cutting apparatus in service longer.”
The cutting chain is now visible above the water line on both sides of the shipwreck.
Each link on the chain is 18 inches high, 3 inches around and weighs 80 pounds.
Salvors start each cut with several hundred feet of cutting chain. The chain gets shorter as slack is taken up, keeping it taut as cuts progress.