U.S. Coast Guard officials determined Thursday morning that the Port of Brunswick could resume shipping on a “case by case” basis, five days after the freighter Golden Ray rolled over in the St. Simons Sound in the early morning hours on Sunday, said Kathy Knowlton, spokeswoman with Unified Command Center that is responding to the shipwreck.
Shipping to the port has been closed since the since the incident, which left the 656-foot, 25,000-ton freighter and its cargo of 4,200 cars foundering on its left side in the sound between St. Simons and Jekyll islands. All 24 members of the ship’s crew were safely rescued. Norm Witt, a Coast Guard Commander and the Captain of Ports for Brunswick and Savannah, indicated as early as Tuesday night that the port could reopen on a limited basis by Thursday.
Witt and Coast Guard Station Brunswick Commander Justin Irwin toured the area of the shipwreck late Wednesday afternoon. The vehicle freighter Emerald Ace, which had been in port since the accident, was seen skirting by the shipwrecked Golden Ray and into the open ocean around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. Later that evening, a biofuel freighter departed from the port.
Both departures were a test run of sorts to determine how shipping traffic and the Golden Ray would affect each other — and by turns the surrounding environment, Coast Guard Lt. Kip Pace said Wednesday night. The Emerald Ace was arriving to the port just as the Golden Ray was departing Sunday morning. The Emerald Ace was able to slide past the Golden Ray and reach the port.
“We tested two outbound vessels yesterday afternoon with positive results,” Witt said Thursday afternoon.
The Emerald Ace’s passing had no connection with the wreck of the Golden Ray, said Capt. John Cameron, who represents the Brunswick Harbor Pilots Association.
Around 1:30 p.m. Thursday, the first incoming freighter was seen passing by the Golden Ray and into the port. Meanwhile, six more ships waited offshore from Glynn County with hopes of also being granted passage to the port.
Witt said the remaining six ships offshore can be brought to port by Friday.
“We’re looking to bring in four vessels (Thursday),” Witt said. “We’re going to continue and hopefully bring in three more in (Friday). We’ll clear out that backlog. I think that is definitely some good news there.”
The Port of Brunswick typically accepts 50 vessels per month. The vessels awaiting entry Thursday included five Ro Ro passenger vehicle ships and a freighter from Trinidad that is here to pick up its regular supply of chicken feed, according to Vicki West of the International Seafarers Center in Brunswick, a nonprofit organization that serves incoming merchant mariners.
“Currently, we have a safety zone in effect to protect the public and the workers on site that is a half nautical mile,” Witt said.
Recreational boat traffic also is being allowed through the area again, Knowlton said. A half-mile perimeter has been established around the Golden Ray, which sits half in the water with its starboard (right) side pointing skyward. Additionally, some 1,200-foot of contaminant-absorbent boom as been “strategically placed” on top of the water east side of the Golden Ray, said Knowlton. An additionally, some 3,100 feet of boom has been placed near the ecologically-sensitive Bird Island in the sound, she said.
The Golden Ray was executing a right turn in the channel when it began “listing heavily” and toppled over on its port (left) side sometime after 1:30 a.m. Sunday. Coast Guard crews arrived to the 2 a.m. distress call to find flames and thick smoke rising from the starboard side. Search and rescue crews managed to get 20 of the 24 crew members off the ship before conditions and safety concerned forced the suspension of rescue operations.
The four remaining crew members were rescued Monday afternoon when Coast Guard workers plucked them from a hole cut in the ship’s hull. The ship’s crew includes 14 Filipinos, nine South Korean men and one South Korean woman, all of whom are presently housed at a local motel while awaiting the necessary paperwork to return home.
Preparations to salvage the Golden Ray are underway. Three fuel vents on the underwater port side have been sealed, Witt said. They are looking to seal the remaining vents.
The ship contains some 300,000 gallons of fuel, not including the fuel that was in the cargo of the 4,200 cars. Some of the ships fuel tanks are near the hull while others are within the ship’s interior. Salvagers are considering draining the more accessible exterior fuel tanks and sealing off the interior tanks, Witt said.
“As we move forward, we are always looking to try to mitigate the pollution threat,” Witt said. “We are hoping to pump off those (exterior) tanks off as soon as it’s possible. With the exterior tanks, it may be more prudent to secure them in place.”
Ultimately, the goal is to remove the Golden Ray out of the St. Simons Sound in one piece.
“The goal is to keep the ship intact,” Witt said.