As the command boat chugged into the 150-yard prohibited perimeter under chilled midmorning sunshine Thursday, the behemoth steel carcass of the Golden Ray showed some signs of life.

Actually, it was just three hardhat guys. They were standing high atop the skyward-facing starboard side of the shipwreck, waiting for their ride. A large walk-in basket dangling by a chain from the top of a towering crane soon lowered the three workers to the barge far below.

“That’s what they’re using to transfer personnel,” said U.S. Coast Guard Commander Norm Witt, standing at the bow of the 42-foot command boat. “Those guys are doing a variety of things right now.”

By the way, in the highly-specialized and precise lingo of the Unified Command, the Golden Ray often is referred to simply as “the casualty.” As in, “We’re going to head out to the casualty now.” That is what Gallagher Marine System’s Ferrell Lafont said before the party boarded the 42-foot command boat at the boat ramp beneath the Sidney Lanier Bridge.

Besides those three workers on top, and a few others walking across the barges below, there was not much visible activity taking place at the wreck of the Golden Ray at this midmorning hour. However, there were a few dozen other workers inside or underneath the Golden Ray, which has sat overturned on its port side in the St. Simons Sound since it capsized Sept. 8 while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles.

The command boat held back about 75 yards from the shipwreck, a precaution for the scuba divers who were down below taking high-tech video in a continuing effort to gauge the shipwreck’s stability on the sandy bottom.

Those workers inside the ship were searching for any remaining fuel oil or other pollutants that could be removed from the vessel, Witt said. However, having pumped some 317,128 gallons of oil from the ship’s numerous tanks since Sept. 25, this phase of the mission is all but completed, Witt said.

“I would say we’re done with the bulk of the lightering,” Witt said, using the nautical term for the process pumping oil from a shipwreck onto a barge.

For the uninitiated, a tour inside the shipwreck zone’s safety perimeter likely will not shed much new light on the 656-foot Golden Ray itself. The vessel looms huge even from the St. Simons Island Pier, the Sidney Lanier Bridge, or the 10th tee of the Sea Island Golf Club’s Plantation Course. Up close, it ... um, looms even huger.

What is more telling from this vantage point, however, is the nautical workforce that has built up around the Golden Ray. The aforementioned crane barge is one of two on the hull side of the vessel. Positioned end to end, the two formidable barges stretch almost the length of the vessel. Another large crane barge is positioned near the bow on the deck side of the Golden Ray.

Stationed in waters nearby is the 110-foot NRC Liberty, which is known by those with access inside the zone as an OSRV — Oil Spill Recovery Vessel. Also on standby is the Atlantic Enterprise. The tugboat’s firefighting capabilities proved valuable when smoke began billowing out of the ship on Oct. 20.

More than half a dozen smaller boats were patrolling in outlying waters Thursday, on the lookout for signs of further oil pollution from the Golden Ray. “The teams are going out every day, looking for oil,” said Coast Guard Commander Matt Baer.

These SCAT (Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Team) teams remain at the ready should another significant leak occur, like those that spread oil throughout more than 20 miles of inland shoreline on Sept. 27 and Sept. 30. The SCAT teams conducted a drill Wednesday at the mouth of the Frederica River, gauging how quickly and effectively they could disperse 5,400 feet of oil-blocking boom in an emergency.

“It was a dress rehearsal,” said Lafont, a response specialist with Gallagher Marine Systems. “In the event something happened, it gave us a time frame. Pull the trigger — boom. We know now how long it’s going to take to get it in place.”

The SCAT teams also are monitoring the 5,400 feet of boom that surrounds Bird Island, so named because of its importance as a vital nesting ground. The booms are connected in triangular patterns offshore from the island. The floating booms are like oversized foam swimming pool noodles, Lafont said. Each has a vinyl mesh skirt that hangs 18 inches below the surface and is weighted by a chain. The boom formations are held in place by 40-pound anchors. But the booms still need SCAT teams on hand to adjust and maintain them due to the swift flow of the sound’s ingoing and outgoing tides.

Another 3,900 feet of boom snakes along the west bank of the Frederica River, just before the Morningstar Marina. The boom can be stretched across the river should an emergency oil leak require it, protecting the yachts at the marina and the marine ecosystem farther downriver.

“They would just bring it across and close the gate,” Lafont said. “So much of this is focused on wildlife, but this is economic too. With all those nice boats, can you imagine oil getting in here?”

But back to the Golden Ray. Actually, there are some minor details about the present state of the Golden Ray that you might miss or overlook from a distance. Baer pointed to a small yellow tarpaulin above the keel near the propeller shaft. “That’s where they cut the hole to reach the last four survivors,” he said. He was referring to the dramatic Sept. 9 rescue, in which four South Korean mariners trapped in the engine room were plucked from that hole in the hull some 38 harrowing hours after the shipwreck.

Just above that is a square cut in the hull that looks about the size of a double door on a backyard tool shed. This hole was used as an entry point for workers in the early stages of this mission, and stands ready for use again. At near water level of the hull’s bow, a hole cut the size of a bay door allows workers to walk a gangplank from the barge to the shipwreck.

Up top, where the starboard side’s surface has become a staging area, a tripod stands near the stern of the ship. Early on, crews were lowered from this hole to build a diving platform below. The diving platform, braced into one of the now vertical decks inside, is used by scuba divers venturing into submerged portions of the ship.

“Those guys are amazing,” said Gallagher’s Tom Wilkir. “They’re in there sideways and going underwater through tanks and then cutting holes in access points, all while attached to an umbilical line.”

Workers also have installed a guardrail, with a toe board below, running along the top of the starboard hull. This was done to keep people and tools from falling off as the ship has slowly dipped by 10 degrees due to scouring and erosion of the sand bed beneath it. Workers also clip onto the rail with harnesses for added safety. The 6,000 tons of aggregate rock that was strategically located around the hull late last month has greatly slowed its shifting in the sands, officials said.

“The range of the list has absolutely slowed,” Baer said. “But the way those strong currents rip around down there, that’s what’s continuing to contribute to the scouring. It’s one of our biggest challenges.”

And those crane barges have served much higher purposes than elevator duty. The cranes have loaded and unloaded machinery and materials, from generators to power ventilation systems to materials and tools for building work platforms and dive platforms inside the ship’s topsy-turvy confines.

Workers continue to concentrate on cleaning the ship of anything that might harm the local waters. Just recently, a crew cut into a paint locker onboard the ship. The cranes hauled out a dozen totes loaded with paint cans, some 3,000 or more gallons total.

“When they opened the doors up to that paint locker, they had to ventilate for two days before they could go in there,” said Witt said.

Farther back is the staging area beneath the Sidney Lanier Bridge. Although the adjacent Sidney Lanier Park has reopened to the public, the boat ramp remains the domain of authorized Unified Command personnel only. Unified Command consists of the Coast Guard, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Gallagher Marine Systems.

“This is basically the pulse of everything that goes on on the boats,” said Lafont, a south Louisiana native who has held onto his cajun accent through 34 years of globe-trotting in the employ of Gallagher Marine Systems. “From lunch to recovery equipment, it goes out here. This is our operating base.”

One boat ferries meals, typically ordered from one of our local restaurants, out to the crews on the water. There is even a necessity boat, which features onboard port-a-lets for workers who otherwise have limited alternatives when nature calls.

All of the activity described above — and all the work that will go into cutting the ship up and getting it out off here — comes from a game plan outlined by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, officials say. The Coast Guard’s role is federal onsite coordinator. DNR acts as the state onsite coordinator. Gallagher Marine Systems acts as liaison with North of England P & I Association and Hyundai Glovis, the insurer and the South Korean company that owns the boat. Gallagher also authorizes money for contractors hired to do the work, all of said money coming from the ship’s owner and its insurer.

Passed by Congress as a direct result of the tanker Exxon Valdez’s massive 1989 oil spill in Alaska, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990’s primary purpose is to outline the procedure and protocol to best reduce the impact of maritime oil spills in U.S. waters.

“We’re just here to deal with the pollution” Lafont said.

Shrimp boats heading in with the morning’s haul churned past the outgoing command boat as it head out to the Golden Ray. Baer comments on his admiration for the independent-minded shrimpers and their legacy on these local waters. Baer grew up a farm boy in western Pennsylvania, but has served in the Coast Guard for 30 years now. Earnest and affable, he says the word “sir” as habitually as a 14-year-old says “you know.” He has come to admire Coastal Georgia, its people and their love of country.

“I can relate to these guys,” he says, as a shrimp boat approaches. “This (water) is their natural environment. It’s their livelihood and their home. We want to make this right for them, for all of the people here.”

There is something else folks will not likely notice from outside this perimeter zone surrounding the Golden Ray. It is not a visible thing, so much as it is an intuition. But the sense of waiting here is palpable; they are all waiting for what happens next.

Even bigger cranes will arrive at some point. It is very possible a great steel wall will be constructed around the ship, creating a dry work space that would reduce the risk of further pollution. And at some point the cutting will begin, most likely by massive carbide-steel toothed cable saws driven by powerful winches capable of slicing up entire sections of the ship.

But the plan that will detail this process from start to finish is still being developed, primarily by contractor Donjon-SMIT. “There’s a few versions being looked at at this point,” Witt said. “I hope we get that info next week on where we’re going.”

Unified Command has cautioned repeatedly how imperative it is that this final plan be as fine-tuned as possible in every aspect. Formulating such a plan takes time. Still, you can sense it. They are waiting on that plan to come together.

“I wish we could just lay out the roadmap from here to the finish,” Witt said. “Unfortunately, I think we’re still developing the road map.”

More from this section