Helicopters rescue 23 crewmen but salvage team member dies

The entire 23-man crew of the listing 55,328-gross-ton vehicle carrier Cougar Ace was rescued on July 24. However, a member of a salvage team put aboard to conduct an inspection of the listing ship was killed in a fall.

Marty Johnson, 40, a Titan employee from Issaquah, Wash., died after he slipped on the deck and hit his head. He was part of a four-man salvage team that had just assessed the vessel, according to Greg Beuerman, spokesman for Mitsui OSK Lines of Tokyo, which operates Cougar Ace. Other team members performed CPR on the scene and Johnson was taken to the nearby Coast Guard cutter Morgenthau for medical treatment, but he was pronounced dead an hour later.

The ship left Japan on July 22 carrying 4,813 vehicles for delivery in Tacoma, Wash. At about 0100 July 24, the crew attempted to adjust the water ballast when the vessel suddenly keeled over onto its port side, with the crew reporting a list of 80° to 90°. At the time, Cougar Ace was about 230 miles south of the Aleutian Islands. A salvage team later determined the list was 60°, according to Petty Officer Sara Francis of the Coast Guard Sector Anchorage.

One crewmember, Saw Lucky Kyin, from Myanmar, fell through a door and slid down the vessel’s deck when the vessel tilted, breaking his left leg and right ankle, according to the Anchorage Daily News. As he hung on the port side rail, crewmembers threw him a rope and retrieved him. He was the only crewmember hurt.

The Singapore-flagged vessel is a roll on/roll off carrier with 14 vehicle decks. It was thought that the vessel might be sinking, but Cougar Ace was stable. Two merchant vessels came to assist, but could not send boats over because of heavy seas. The vessel had onboard 113,500 gallons of intermediate fuel oil and 33,000 gallons of marine diesel, which had not spilled as of early August.

Between 2105 and 2209, all 23 crew were hoisted off Cougar Ace by one Coast Guard HH-60 Jayhawk rescue helicopter and two HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters, assisted by two HH-30 refueling tankers. (See sidebar.) Weather conditions during the rescue were overcast with 10-foot seas and 8-knot winds. All 23 crewmembers wore immersion suits. A year ago, Mitsui mandated that all vessels it operates carry immersion suits for the entire crew, according to Beuerman.

Once the crew was rescued, the next task was to salvage the vessel. Mitsui hired Titan for the job. In addition to Morgenthau, four other vessels assisted on the scene: the Crowley Maritime tug Sea Victory; the Foss Maritime tug Emma Foss; the Magone Marine Service Inc. salvage vessel Makushin Bay; and the Coast Guard cutter Sycamore.

On July 31 a four-man salvage team tried to board the vessel from the salvage ship Makushin Bay, but could not climb the structure, according to the Coast Guard. So a Coast Guard HH-65 Dolphin helicopter landed the men on Cougar Ace.

The team checked the engine room, which was dry, and checked the No. 1 deck (the highest deck) and the No. 9 deck. The cars on these two decks were still in place. Each team member wore a harness and was clipped onto a safety line, according to Mark Miller, a spokesman for Crowley Maritime, which owns Titan.

After completing the survey, the salvage team gathered outside on the vessel, getting ready to be picked up by the helicopter. “They were moving down the deck, which was at an angle,” Miller said. “For some reason and we don’t know why right now ” (Johnson) became unclipped and slid down the deck, hit his head and was knocked unconscious.” He fell an estimated 60 to 80 feet.

Additional salvors arrived on the scene on Aug. 2, but work could not proceed because fog prevented the helicopters from operating. By Aug. 3, two pumps and other equipment were brought onto Cougar Ace.

The salvage team planned to begin pumping out the No. 9 cargo deck on Aug. 8, followed by the transfer of seawater into the starboard ballast tanks, in order to right the vessel. With the vessel tilted so far onto its port side, there was a concern that water could come in through the port side vents, especially in heavy seas. Water was slowly seeping into the No. 9 deck through a cargo door.

“The situation is constantly reviewed,” Beuerman said, noting that the leaking door was not creating additional problems for the vessel.

The vessel’s extreme list made it difficult for salvage crews to work on board. Rope ladders to help workers move around inside arrived in Dutch Harbor Aug. 3.

One of the challenges was controlling the disabled vessel’s drift. Tilted on its side, “the large face of the vessel is acting as a pretty good sail,” said Petty Officer Francis. On Aug. 1, the tug Emma Foss hooked up a towline to Cougar Ace and was able to change the carrier’s course so that the deck on the port side was not rolling into the water as much.

On Aug. 2, the tug Sea Victory took over the tow and was bringing Cougar Ace toward the Samalga Pass to get out of the North Pacific, where 6- to 12-foot swells hampered pumping. Moving the vessel from the North Pacific to the Bering Sea “will give us a little better swell condition,” said Beuerman. “We want to make sure the work on board can progress as quickly and as safely as possible.”

By Aug. 7, Cougar Ace was 13 miles northeast of Umnak Island in semi-protected waters, according to the Coast Guard, after being towed through Samalga Pass.

David Tyler

By Professional Mariner Staff