U.S. Coast Guard search and rescue personnel continued attempts Sunday afternoon to stabilize the freighter Golden Ray, a necessary step in order to resume rescue efforts for four South Korean crewman who remain unaccounted for after the ship overturned in the St. Simons Sound earlier in the dark morning hours.
Coast Guard search and rescue personnel have detected signs that at least some of the missing crewmen are alive, said Coast Guard Station Brunswick commander Justin Irwin. Irwin said they have heard tapping from locations coming inside the vessel and that Coast Guard members are tapping back on the Golden Ray’s hull to let them know they are not forgotten. The search will resume early Monday morning, Irwin said.
“We don’t know if it is all four of them, but there has to be something in there tapping back at us,” Irwin said. “We are going to go at it tomorrow and try to find them.”
A Coast Guard official said there are no immediate signs of significant fuel spills or other water pollutants in the area as a result of the spill, although efforts are under way to contain any pollution that may arise as a result of the rollover.
The vessel overturned sometime after 1:30 a.m. Sunday in the shipping channel just off the St. Simons Pier, between St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island, according to reports. The Golden Ray was attempting to turn right out of the port and move into the open ocean when it began “listing heavily” to its right side before rolling over on its left side, said Commander John Reed of Coast Guard Sector Charleston. Coast Guard Sector Charleston received an emergency call about the rollover of the 200-meter-by-25 meter ship at 2 a.m., Reed said.
Fire and smoke began emanating soon after from the cargo area above the right side of the vessel, he said.
Coast Guard crews managed to rescue 20 of 24 crew members before the fire and other stability issues forced them to suspend rescue efforts for the four remaining crewman. The fire onboard appears to have burned itself out, but Coast Guard officials are still trying to determine if it is safe for search and rescue crews to enter, Reed said.
“We are still conducting a rescue operation, and we have assets on scene,” Reed said. “They continue to do whatever they can do. But it is a complex situation, so we’re looking, not just to rescue those onboard, but also to be able to provide safety for our (search and rescue) crews. It’s ongoing — we’re looking to throw as much as we can into this to solve this complex problem.”
Two members of the South Korean U.S. Consulate were on hand for a press conference Sunday afternoon at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources headquarters beneath the Sidney Lanier Bridge. U.S. Coast Guard Station Brunswick also is located in the complex. One consulate member confirmed the four missing crewmen were Korean, but would give no further details.
At least one member of the rescued crew suffered an injury, said Vicki West, Director of the International Seafarers Center in Brunswick. One crewman suffered a broken ankle, for which he was treated at Southeast Georgia Health System’s Brunswick hospital and released, she said.
The crew members were being fed and provided with Bibles and packets of necessities Sunday afternoon at the Seafarer Center, 307 Newcastle St., she said. The crew consists primarily of Filipinos, although two of the rescued crewmen were South Korean, she said. She said most were in good spirits, although the two Koreans crewmen at the center were deeply concerned for the welfare of their four countrymen still aboard the ship. Motel accommodations have been provided locally for the crewmen by their employer, she said.
“We’ve fed them and prayed with them and just tried to make them as comfortable as we can,” West said of the crewmen. “The two Korean men are troubled about the status of their friends. Some of the men are a little traumatized, but otherwise everybody seems to be doing very well.”
Coast Guard and DNR officials are monitoring the waters surrounding the Golden Ray for fuel spills or other pollutants, said Norman Witt, Commanding Officer of the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit in Savannah.
“Currently, I would say there is no active release of pollution,” Witt said. “However, under the potential there would be, we have established a unified command, and we are mobilizing resources. We’re taking all the steps necessary to continue to mitigate any potential pollution.”
The Coastal Health District has issued a swimming advisory for beaches on St. Simons and Jekyll islands until more is known about the environmental impact of the incident.
The Coast Guard, DNR and Gallagher Marine Services will conduct salvaging operations to remove the Golden Ray from the St. Simons Sound. A tugboat was on scene Sunday morning, attempting to keep the ship stabilized on the south side of the channel near Jekyll Island.
Bruce Fendig with the Brunswick Harbor Pilots Association said he was not at liberty to identify the harbor pilot in command of the ship at the time of the incident. However, he did confirm that the harbor pilot was not injured. The Harbor Pilot Association provides the port’s harbor pilots, who are required to pilot all ships in and out of the Port of Brunswick.
According to a witness who said he was on the pier at the time, the incident happened as the outgoing Golden Ray was approaching another ship coming into the channel.
“They were getting ready to pass each other, but it didn’t work out that way,” said Gregory Roberts, a longtime regular at the pier who is known as Crab Man.
The incoming ship was able to clear the channel and continue its journey to the port, Roberts said.
Roberts added that he was at the foot of the covered area at the entrance of the pier when the incident occurred.
“I just heard somebody say boat over, and I looked up and there it was,” Roberts said. “It was dark, you couldn’t hardly see it, but it had definitely rolled over.”
The inbound ship has been identified as the Emerald Ace.
A source told The News that the ship has 40,000 gallons of fuel on board, and that a boom has been ordered to be put in place to surround the ship in case of fuel spillage.
County officials closed the St. Simons Island pier as a precaution early Sunday morning, but reopened it later in the day.
The Golden Ray is what is known as a Ro Ro ship, so called because the vessels roll vehicles on at one port and roll them off after delivery to another port. The massive ships are a familiar sight heading in out of the St. Simons Sound, as the Port of Brunswick is one of the top Ro Ro shipping destinations in the nation.
The ship was leaving the port with a load of 4,200 vehicles when the rollover occurred. Coast Guard officials would not speculate on the cause or contributing factors Sunday.
Reed remained hopeful the missing men can be safely located once it is safe to resume the search.
“The fire was observed this morning, coming off the starboard (right) side and it was black smoke,” Reed said. “Since then the flames have gone out, and the black smoke has ceased, but we are unable to determine specifically, without going inside, whether the fire is completely extinguished.
“When the ship is stable, we will continue to identify the best options to continue our rescue efforts for the four crewman who remain on board.”