- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

OCEAN CITY, Md. — The Coast Guard today will continue to search for 18 crew members missing since late Saturday when a tanker ship carrying 3.2 million gallons of ethanol exploded off Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

The 570-foot Bow Mariner exploded at about 6 p.m. Saturday and sank 200 feet to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, 50 miles off the coast of Chincoteague and Assateague, Va. Virginia’s Eastern Shore is home to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, one of the most visited national wildlife refuges in the country.

Three crew members were killed in the blast; six were rescued from a life raft adrift in the frigid waters three hours later.

“When the rescue divers got on the scene, the fuel tanker was on fire, sinking, and there were people in the water,” said Lt. Chris Shaffer of Ocean City Emergency Services.

With the water temperature at 44 degrees, a person could survive several hours depending on health and survival gear, said Rear Adm. Sally Brice-O’Hara, commander of the Coast Guard’s 5th District. The Coast Guard said, however, that the chances of finding survivors dwindles with each passing hour.

“Realistically, the longer the search goes on, the less likely it is that we will find anyone who is still alive,” Adm. Brice-O’Hara said yesterday.

The rescued crew members were flown to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. All were treated for condition, including hypothermia and were decontaminated after being found covered with oil.

Three survivors were in good condition at the hospital and three were released yesterday morning, hospital spokeswoman Vicky Gray said. Two Coast Guard workers treated for minor injuries also were released.

“They look like they’ve been through an ordeal and they’re very introspective about what happened,” Miss Gray said of the rescued crewmen, who are Filipinos and did not seem to speak English. “They’re very quiet, subdued, like you would expect.”

The crew members declined interview requests, Miss Gray said.

The Coast Guard will investigate the accident, which occurred in international waters.

A spokesman for the Norway-based Odfjell, the commercial operator and owner of the ship, declined to speculate on the cause of the accident. “We are very grieved about having to report that Bow Mariner has gone down and that many seamen have lost their lives,” company Chairman Dan Odfjell said.

The tanker was traveling from New York to Houston when it made an emergency call just after 6 p.m. that there had been an explosion, Coast Guard officials said.

One of the dead crew members was taken to Atlantic General Hospital in Berlin, Md., spokeswoman Toni Keiser said, with two rescue divers who were treated for minor injuries and released. Another crew member died at Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury, Md., nursing supervisor Betty Turner said. It was not clear where the third person died.

In Norfolk, hospital chaplains helped crew members talk to their families in the Philippines by telephone.

Authorities said yesterday that most of the ethanol, a grain alcohol used as a gasoline additive, had evaporated during the explosion. But fuel from the ship’s storage tanks had formed a 9-square-mile oil slick in the Atlantic.

It was not known how much fuel spilled into the ocean. But Coast Guard officials said the chemical tanker had aboard 3.2 million gallons of ethanol, 48,000 gallons of stored diesel fuel and 193,000 gallons of fuel oil.

Computer models drawn by scientists at the Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predict that the spill will continue to wash out to sea and not wash up on the Maryland and Virginia shores.

Still, state environmental officials worried yesterday that the fuel oil, which has the consistency of molasses, could stick to the Eastern Shore wildlife and vegetation, with deadly consequences.

“That’s what we’re really keeping an eye on,” said Mike Sharon, chief of the emergency response division of the Maryland Department of the Environment. “We don’t want that stuff to reach the shoreline.”

Mr. Sharon said there was no threat to the shoreline as of yesterday, but added that Assateague shoreline officials will continue to monitor the drift closely because of the wildlife on the island.

Assateague is a 37-mile-long barrier island along the coast of Virginia and Maryland. It is home to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. It boasts more than 14,000 acres of beach, dunes, marsh, and maritime forest, as well as a variety of fish and birds.

“The saving grace, if there is a saving grace to this, is that the spill happened so far off the shore,” Mr. Sharon said.

He said computer-generated wind and weather models have shown that the spill will continue to drift southeast, away from the shore. “There is no alarm to Assateague at this time,” he said.

Mr. Sharon and the Coast Guard said it is too early to determine the best way to clean the spill, but some of the options include skimming the oil off the surface, burning it or using chemicals to break it up. If the slick shifts and moves toward the shore, officials said they could use barriers to contain it.

Richard L. Bayles, Ocean City’s emergency management director, said yesterday that he was concerned about the fuel slick despite the Coast Guard’s assurances.

“We hope it is going away,” Mr. Bayles said. “But any time there is anything out on the ocean that poses a threat to our beaches, of course we are concerned.”

Lifeguard Jake Walter, who lives in Ocean City, echoed the fears of many local businessmen: He didn’t want an oil spill to spoil the upcoming beach season.

“Last year, it rained all summer,” said Mr. Walter, 20. “I’m worried. I know it is far away, but things drift.”

Kenny Goldberg, 51, who works at the Bust One You Win balloon-dart game on the Boardwalk, agreed. “You got to be concerned about the environment,” he said. “You worry about all the wildlife, the fish, especially living at the beach. Tourism is a big part of the economy.”

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard used two 87-foot patrol boats from Portsmouth and Little Creek, as well as a C-130 airplane and an HH-60 helicopter from Elizabeth City, N.C., to search for the missing crew members.

The helicopter found the six survivors early in the search. It lowered a rescue basket to the life raft, but the crewmen didn’t move. A rescue swimmer was then lowered into the water and pulled them into the basket one by one.

“It occurred to me that we were going to watch six people die if we didn’t take some action,” said Lt. Eric Bader, the helicopter pilot.

The Singapore-flagged ship is a chemical tanker built in 1982 and is managed by a Greek company, Ceres Hellenic Shipping Enterprises Ltd. A company spokesman said the ship had a crew of 24 Filipinos and three Greeks.

The tanker underwent two routine inspections in the past year, Ceres Hellenic said in a statement yesterday. No problems were found in January, and five minor deficiencies were found in October, including a defective crew shower and the need to update a log book. The problems were resolved and the ship sailed without delay, the company said.

Tony Redding, spokesman for Ceres Hellenic, said it had discharged some of its cargo in New York before leaving for Houston. The company sent a technical crew from Greece yesterday to assist the Coast Guard, he said.

• Judith Person contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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