Three dead as heavy-lift ship capsizes while loading generator

Three crewmembers of the heavy-lift ship MV Stellamare were killed on Dec. 9, 2003, after their vessel rolled onto its port side and then sank at its berth while loading cargo in the Port of Albany, N.Y.

“We believe the people onboard the ship only had a minute or more of suspicion that something was wrong, and that included the entire capsize,” said Cmdr. John E. Cameron, the U.S. Coast Guard’s on-scene commander of the incident’s unified command.

A witness across the river said, “It seemed the ship just rolled over in about a minute.”

Six crewmen topside were thrown into the icy Hudson River. The nearby tug Rhea I. Bouchard came to assist and rescued both a ship’s derrick operator, who had been thrown into the river, and the other derrick operator, who was clinging to the other crane’s mast.

Longshoremen immediately put ladders from the dock over onto the hull and helped some survivors escape. But three crewmen working in the hold were trapped and died as river water poured into the open hatches.

Stellamare, owned by Jumbo Navigation NV, is registered in Willemstad, Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles, and carried a crew of 18. The ship is 289 feet long with a 50.9-foot beam. The two derricks have a total lift capacity of 396 tons when operating in tandem.

Earlier Stellamare’s crew had lowered into the hold an electric generator, weighing 258 tons. The accident occurred as the crew was loading the stator, weighing 340 tons.

To lift the stator, the ship’s ballast tanks were used to create a 2º list to starboard, according to investigators. The cables from the ship’s two derricks were hooked to the stator sitting on a railcar alongside the ship. Winches then pulled the slack out of the cables.

Ballast was next shifted from the ship’s starboard tanks to the port tanks to level the ship, thereby lifting the stator just high enough off the railcar to allow it to be swung over the ship by its two derricks operating in unison. The investigators are working to determine the actual sequence of ballasting operations and the volumes of water involved to see if they may have affected the ship’s stability.

When the stator was being moved onboard, investigators believe it was parallel to the centerline of the ship. While part of the stator was still outboard of the starboard gunwale and overhanging the pier, some witnesses noted an unusual list to port, but the motion was nearly imperceptible immediately before the rapid uncontrolled list to port began.

As the ship heeled to port, the stator swung inboard toward the ship’s center. As the list increased, the suspended stator passed over the port gunwale into the water and sank to the river bottom, approximately 34 feet below. “It was like an anchor,” said one maritime source.

Stellamare continued to roll until the list reached approximately 75Â. At that point the ship was resting on the bottom with the stator still attached to the derricks’ rigging.

The rescue operation’s initial concern was recovering the three lost crewmen, but dangerous conditions within the ship and lack of visibility for police and salvage divers delayed recovery. The first body was recovered on Dec. 19 and the last on Jan. 5. Environmental damage was minimized by rapid response that recovered 6,000 gallons of diesel oil and 1,400 gallons of other oils.

The pollution management operation was “immediate, successful and effective,” Cameron said. On Dec. 18, divers from Donjon Marine Co. Inc., of Hillside, N.J., lifted the stator from the river bottom.

The primary salvor, Smit Salvage Americas Inc., of Houston, was assisted by Donjon Marine and Weeks Marine, of Cranford, N.J.

“Smit’s salvage plan was to lift and right the ship by using its two masts as lever arms,” explained John Witte, executive vice president of Donjon. Heavy chains wrapped around the top of the derricks’ masts provided the lift connection for Donjon’s floating crane (1,000-ton lift capacity) and Weeks’ floating crane (500-ton lift capacity).

Stellamare had rolled away from the pier. To prevent structural damage to the pier’s pilings during the salvage, several massive H-beam structural frames were lowered into the water at an angle between the ship and the pier. The first lift was on Dec. 29. Salvors rigged differently for the second lift to get the ship to continue to roll upright while sliding away from the pier, Cameron explained.

During the refloating operation, the salvors achieved 1,000 tons of buoyancy, using all the ship’s ballast tanks. By Jan. 5 Stellamare was refloated and moored to the pier. The ship was declared a total constructive loss by the owners.

Cameron said the initial accident investigation “found no failed components of the derricks, the ballast system or the ballast control system. The position of valves, motor controllers and switches corroborated the collective stories we got from witness statements.”

The investigation is also focusing on various conditions up to the point where stability was lost. “There is no question the stator (being loaded) was a component of the weight that contributed to the capsize,” he noted.

The 258-ton generator in the hold also shifted to the port side as the ship heeled over. A ballasting problem was initially cited as a possible cause, but the volume of ballast, its movement and its locations during the loading are still being determined.

“This accident will always be a tragedy because of the three lives lost,” Cameron noted. “But the salvage operation was carried out successfully, safely and professionally. We have a good body of evidence, but it will take some time in the analysis phase to put the pieces together.”

By Professional Mariner Staff