Six men evacuated from bulker die when their rescue copter crashes in the Bering Sea

Six crew from the Malaysian-flagged bulk carrier Selendang Ayu are missing and presumed dead after a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter, which was rescuing them after their ship foundered on a shoal off Unalaska Island, Alaska, crashed into the Bering Sea on Dec. 8.

Selendang Ayu lies in two pieces after running aground and breaking apart off the Aleutian Island of Unalaska.
   Image Credit: Courtesy Alaska Department of Fish and Game

A second Coast Guard helicopter rescued the three helicopter personnel and one crewmember from the water. Of the 26 crewmembers onboard the vessel, 20 were saved. Five of the lost crew were from India; one was from the Philippines. The Coast Guard called off the search for the missing men on Dec. 10.

The missing crew were wearing life jackets over street clothes when they went into the water, Rear Adm. James C. Olson said in a Dec. 10 press conference. Olson also stated that the water was 43° F and there was little hope the survivors could be found. Survival suits and location devices such as flashing beacons are standard gear for the rescue helicopter crew, said Petty Officer Cindy Marshall in the Coast Guard’s public information office in Anchorage.

Selendang Ayu, a 39,775-gt bulker carrying soybeans from Tacoma to China, lost all engine power and went adrift on Dec. 7, about 35 nm off Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands. Despite repeated efforts to tow the vessel out of danger, it drifted onto a shoal between Spray Cape and Skan Bay on Unalaska Island and split in two on Dec. 8. The two sections settled about 200 yards offshore in water about 40 feet deep.

Selendang Ayu is managed by IMC Transworld of Singapore and was built in 1998 at Hudong Shipyard, China.

Officials estimated the vessel had almost 424,000 gallons of No. 6 fuel oil and 18,334 gallons of diesel fuel onboard when it broke up. Of that, at least 40,131 gallons had spilled from the No. 2 fuel tank, where the vessel split.

One of the primary tasks of the salvage teams will be to determine the status of the oil tanks and to try to remove whatever oil remains onboard.

On Dec. 12, after five straight days with winds over 30 knots, a break in the weather allowed a Coast Guard HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter to lower a three-man salvage team onto the stern section. There was a small breach in the No. 3 tank, which held 104,448 gallons, but they could not determine how much was leaking. The salvage team did find that the No. 4 port tank, containing 56,875 gallons, was still intact.

The team was unable to inspect tanks holding 205,974 gallons of fuel oil. Most of that oil, 176,473 gallons, was in the bow section, which was not visited on Dec. 12. Salvors also were unable to inspect the No. 4 starboard fuel tank (in the stern), which has 29,501 gallons of fuel. There was no information released about the port, starboard and service marine diesel oil tanks, which contained 18,334 gallons of diesel oil, and 16,478 gallons of fuel oil in a settling tank.

Three cargo holds in the stern section containing soybeans were breached. On Dec. 12, salvage experts flying over the wreck estimated less than 2,100 gallons of oil was visible from the air.

On Dec. 8, the wind was from the northwest at 40 knots, with gusts up to 50 knots, and seas were 20 to 22 feet, according to Marshall. From Dec. 7 through Dec. 10, seas in the area were never less than 15 feet.

The coastline near where the ship grounded is managed as part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. It provides critical habitat for marine mammals, including sea otters, northern fur seals and the endangered Steller sea lion, and for 40 million seabirds, including eight species found only in Alaska and nearby parts of Russia.

The Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment, Dutch Harbor, received a report from the harbormaster of Dutch Harbor at 0400 on Dec. 7 that Selendang Ayu had lost engine power and was adrift. At 1410 on Dec. 7 the vessel was 35 nm northwest of Makushin Bay, Unalaska Island, drifting southeast at about 2.5 knots. The 282-foot Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley was dispatched to render assistance.

The 3,000-hp tug Sidney Foss, of Foss Maritime, the 4,300-hp tug James Dunlap, of Dunlap Towing Co., and the salvage vessel Redeemer, of Magone Marine Services Inc., were sent to the scene to try to take the bulker in tow. Sidney Foss successfully attached an 8-inch-diameter towline to the vessel late on the night of Dec. 7. However, that line snapped at 0700 on Dec. 8.

“That thing dragged them backwards for 12 hours before it broke the towline,” said Dan Magone, president of Magone Marine. “Then the James Dunlap, they tried to get in there, but their decks were so awash they couldn’t get their crew out on deck.”

Selendang Ayu’s crew dropped its port anchor at about 1100 on Dec. 8 to try to slow the vessel’s drift, but the anchor chain broke shortly after noon, according to the Coast Guard. The starboard anchor was dropped at about 1525, stopping the vessel about half a mile offshore. By that time, 18 of the ship’s 26 crew had been taken off the vessel by a Coast Guard Jayhawk from Kodiak.

Image Credit: Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

Wreckage of the Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter that crashed while trying to rescue the crew of Selendang Ayu.

At about 1715, the second anchor began to drag, and the vessel drifted toward shore. At about 1800, the vessel grounded out, according to the Coast Guard.

Magone said Selendang Ayu struck a triangular-shaped shoal. He was in a helicopter at the time, assessing the scene. “The outside of that shoal has great big sunkers on it, so it fetched up against one of those,” Magone said. “I was there when they went aground, and as soon as it went aground, they started taking water, it got a port list, and the captain decided to evacuate the rest of his officers.”

Magone said the wind was so strong that his helicopter had to maintain an airspeed of 60 mph just to hover.

At that point, the captain asked that his remaining seven crew be evacuated. After the men were brought up off the deck of the ship into the helicopter, the Jayhawk crashed into the ocean at about 1820. An HH-65A Dolphin helicopter had already been launched from Alex Haley. It was on scene within two minutes and rescued the three crewmembers of the downed helicopter and one of the bulker’s crew. That helicopter took the survivors to Dutch Harbor, about 25 miles away.

Meanwhile, a Coast Guard swimmer and the bulker’s captain were still on deck. At about 1914, Selendang Ayu began to break up. The two men were on the bow section. At 2025 the Dolphin helicopter returned from Dutch Harbor and plucked them off the deck of the bow section.

By Professional Mariner Staff