The RATs were back in action Sunday, dangling from ropes over what is left of the shipwrecked Golden Ray and making precision cuts with 6-foot welding torches, said U.S. Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesman for Unified Command.
The Rope Access Technicians burned slight deviations into the cutting path along Section 3 of the half-submerged chunk of steel in the St. Simons Sound, hoping to save some wear and tear on the massive cutting chain that hefts the bulk of the separation work. The massive chain, powered by the winches and pulleys and wire rigging of the 255-foot-tall VB 10,000 crane vessel, paused Sunday, Himes said.
That gave the RATs a chance to get up close for precise work along the cutting path in an effort to avoid a dense bulkhead inside the shipwreck, Himes said. Such dense steel-reinforced support structures have caused wear on the VB 10,000’s wire rigging, as well as wear and breakage on the cutting chain.
The RATs worked through the day Sunday and Monday morning.
The cutting chain resumed cycling early Monday afternoon, Himes said.
“The chain encountered some incredibly thick steel in the form of what looks like a bulkhead,” Himes said. “The chain was just flat up against the bulkhead. The salvage master (recommended) torch cutting to assist the chain in working through this.”
As of Monday afternoon, salvors were more than 75 percent complete with the cut to remove Section 3 from the eastern end of the shipwreck, Himes said. The chain has reached way above the water line on both the hull side and deck side of the shipwreck.
Salvors precut plates of steel along the exterior of the cutting path to help guide the cutting chain and expedite each cut.
“They were cutting all last week and they were cutting over the weekend,” Himes said. “We can be cutting with something as big as the large chain or something as small as the torches the Rope Access Technicians employ. But it is all cutting.”
The 656-foot-long Golden Ray overturned on its port side between Jekyll and St. Simons islands on Sept. 8, 2019, while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles. Since cutting began in November, four gargantuan sections have been cut away and removed from the sound.
With three cuts and four sections remaining, the shipwreck’s presence in the sound has been reduced to about 300 feet.
Like most of the previous cutting efforts, the fifth cut into the shipwreck has not been without challenges. A RAT welder’s torch sparked an inferno inside the shipwreck May 14 that was quickly spread by stiff easterly winds to many of the hundreds of vehicles above the waterline inside the shipwreck.
Then last week, gray fuel sheens and globules of heavy oil began discharging from the shipwreck, showing up in the waters of the sound, in marshes and on shorelines. The brunt of the discharge occurred May 31 and June 1.
A flotilla of cleanup crews addressed the pollution on the water with oil-absorbent boom, oil skimmers boats and a current buster, a V-shaped vessel that corrals and collects floating oil.
Cleanup teams on land continue policing shorelines, picking up oil globules and oiled sand. Crews also sprayed oiled marsh grass with sphagnum moss, designed to break down the oil on vegetation and prevent oil from getting on wildlife, Himes said.
Only light fuel sheens have been detected from the shipwreck since Wednesday, Himes said, but crews continue to address it.
Last week, the Glynn County Health Department issued a public advisory cautioning beachgoers and anglers to avoid oil sheens in the water and contact with oil globules in the sand. People who spot oil on land or water are asked to call the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center at 800-424-8802.
As the welders perform work similar to that which sparked a conflagration within the shipwreck three weeks ago, salvors and Unified Command are cognizant of the need for safety, Himes said.
The large firefighting-equipped tugboat Lou Ann Guidry remains on scene to keep a steady stream of sea water over the hulking shipwreck, spraying inside and outside. A smaller Bearcat tugboat also has its firehoses aimed on the shipwreck.
Inside, a system of previously-installed hoses intermittently spray the interior where torch cutting occurs, Himes said.
“We run those fire cannon every time we do hot work, anything that is going to create a spark,” Himes said. “Inside, we used seawater to create a boundary between where we’re doing work and the rest of the wreck.”
Unified Command warned last summer that the cutting process would likely cause fires and oil discharges. But, Himes said, they are proceeding with the dirty work of one of the largest salvage operations in U.S. history with utmost caution.
Unified Command consists of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marines Systems. It is responsible for ensuring that the ship’s owner and insurer adhere to the environmental protection guidelines established by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
“We cannot guarantee that there won’t be another fire going forward,” Himes said. “But we continually improve our practices to reduce the possibilities. We’re removing a ship. What we do can create fire, create discharges. All of those hazards exist inside the ship. Everything we’re doing is to protect our people, the public and the environment.”