Salvage work has resumed near Brunswick, Ga., following a fire inside the Golden Ray wreck that burned for roughly seven hours.
Workers noticed smoke emanating from the capsized vehicle carrier around noon on May 14. At the time, crews were using cutting torches and preparing to separate two sections of the ship, according to U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer Michael Himes, a spokesman for the multi-agency unified command.
Ignition happened despite fire suppression efforts, he said, which involve spraying seawater around areas where torch cutting takes place.
“Despite that, we believe that (hot work) started a fire that was able to move through the rest of the wreck due to high winds,” Himes said in a phone interview.
No one working on the salvage project was injured. The incident remains under investigation.
Golden Ray rolled onto its port side before dawn on Sept. 8, 2019 while outbound from the Port of Brunswick loaded with roughly 4,200 vehicles. Nineteen crewmembers and a pilot escaped the vessel without serious injury, although four were stuck inside the hull for more than a day.
The Coast Guard conducted a preliminary analysis suggesting the ship had too many vehicles placed on higher decks and not enough ballast water given the placement of the cargo.
The official cause of the capsizing in St. Simons Sound remains under investigation by the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board.
The salvage operation to remove vehicles and the 71,178-gt ship is one of the most complex in modern history. Up to 400 workers and 50 vessels are involved in the effort, which involves cutting the ship into eight sections for removal.
Versabar’s VB-10,000 heavy-lift vessel performs the cutting using a 400-foot chain. The twin-barge catamaran has two 240-foot-tall gantries and a lift capacity of 7,500 tons. It is the largest heavy-lift vessel built in the United States.
As of late May, crews working under primary contractor T&T Salvage of Galveston, Texas, had removed roughly half of the 656-foot ship, Himes said. At least 1,000 vehicles also were removed.
“We … go like a typewriter, from end to end,” he explained. “The sequence was bow, stern, section 2, section 7 and now we are working on section 3. We are approaching amidships. Including this one, we have three cuts left.”
Workers were in the process of separating the third and fourth sections when the fire started. It happened during pre-cutting operations that involve using 6-foot torches along the cut groove for section 3. This work directs the cutting chain away from areas of thicker steel in its path, the Coast Guard said.
The actual ignition source is not known, although Himes suggested one or more vehicles still inside the wreck caught fire.
The fire response began immediately after workers noticed smoke coming from the ship. Tugboats and support craft operating nearby aimed monitors into the wreckage and against the hull to cool the vessel. A deluge system installed within Golden Ray operated during the fire response, as did the off-ship firefighting system on VB-10,000, Himes said. The fire was extinguished early in the evening of May 14.
“We continued our fire suppression efforts outside the wreck long after fire was determined to be controlled,” Himes said, noting that those efforts included cooling the boundary of the wreck.
The fire shut down salvage operations for 13 days. Authorities inspected VB-10,000 and other equipment, as well as the wreck, before cutting resumed on May 27. Cutting paused again in mid-June for equipment maintenance, officials said.
“We are confident that we can safely resume cutting operations after carefully assessing all of our equipment and the wreck itself,” Coast Guard Cmdr. Efren Lopez, federal on-scene coordinator, said after the fire. “We are completely focused on our goal of safely removing the remainder of the Golden Ray while safeguarding the surrounding environment and the shipping channel throughout the process.”
Authorities reported plastic debris washing up on shore in larger quantities than normal after the fire. Crews scoured the shoreline and removed any material they encountered.
Separately, the ship began discharging oil five days after cutting resumed. It is not clear if the discharge, which caused small quantities of oil to reach nearby beaches and marshes, was related to the fire.