- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

The U.S. Coast Guard yesterday suspended its search for 18 crew members lost at sea when a tanker carrying 3.2 million gallons of ethanol exploded and sank Saturday evening off Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

“The Coast Guard did search as long as there was a reasonable chance for survival, and as time went on, those chances diminished,” Petty Officer Tim Pike, a Coast Guard spokesman, said after the rescue mission was abandoned shortly after 1 p.m. yesterday.

Guardsmen rescued six survivors and recovered the bodies of three crewmen, but had not found the others after nearly two days of searching. It would take an “extreme, miraculous situation” for someone to survive for 43 hours in the 44-degree water about 50 miles from the coast, Petty Officer Pike said.

The 570-foot tanker Bow Mariner exploded at about 6 p.m. Saturday and sank more than 200 feet to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, 50 miles off the coast of Chincoteague and Assateague, Va.

The accident spurred fears that fuel oil from the tanker might create an environmental disaster for beaches on Maryland’s and Virginia’s Eastern Shore, including the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, one of the most visited national wildlife refuges in the nation.

Crews searched by air and sea yesterday for small pockets of fuel oil remaining from a 9-square-mile slick that broke up late Sunday night. Environmental officials hoped wind and currents would continue to push the fuel out to sea, and Coast Guard officials said it might be possible to recover some oil.

Most of the industrial ethanol, a grain alcohol used as a gasoline additive, evaporated immediately after spilling from the tanker, but Coast Guard officials say the ocean is covered in places with a sheen, probably from lingering amounts of ethanol.

State environmental officials were confident that the sensitive shoreline was not threatened by the ethanol, which is water-soluble and considered environmentally clean. However, they remained concerned that the fuel oil, which has the consistency of molasses, could stick to Eastern Shore fish and birds with deadly consequences.

“It’s still a very tragic situation, but from a spill standpoint, right now it looks like fate has been on our side,” said Mike Sharon, chief of the emergency-response division at the Maryland Department of the Environment. “Had that been a supertanker filled with oil, it would have been of much greater concern.”

Although the Coast Guard didn’t yet know how much of the fuel aboard the ship spilled, officials say it was carrying about 3.5 million gallons of ethanol, 48,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 193,000 gallons of fuel oil.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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