SAVANNAH, Ga. – When recovery teams began cutting the csized Golden Ray, a shipwreck the size of a 70-story office building with 4,200 cars on the cargo decks, they predicted in early November that the demolition could be destroyed by New Years Day .
Four months later, the job is far from over.
Both ends of the cargo ship were cut off and hauled away by barges in two huge pieces. But about three-quarters of the ship remain stranded on its side off St. Simons Island on the Georgia coast, where the South Korean freighter overturned shortly after leaving port on September 8, 2019.
“It was nothing more than a problem out here,” said Andy Jones, a St. Simons Island resident who drives his small fishing boat to the wreck site most days to monitor the demolition and provide updates on a YouTube channel publish. “It’s a disappointingly slow pace.”
Salvage experts decided more than a year ago that the 199-meter-long Golden Ray was too big to be removed intact. They decided to break the ship down into eight massive pieces, each weighing up to 4,100 tons (3,720 tons).
They spanned the wreck with a towering crane with a winch and pulley system attached to a 122-meter-long anchor chain that acted as a blunt saw blade and tore through the hull with brutal force.
From start to finish, every single cut should take a single day. Taking into account the time it takes to load each severed ship section onto a barge and prepare for the next slice, the Multiagency Command monitors the effort that is predicted that the job will take eight weeks.
It turned out to be a lot more difficult.
Related: Crew members rescued from csized cargo ship
The first cut started on November 6th and lasted three weeks. Raising the bow section of the ship revealed battered cars and SUVs in neat, layered rows on the inner decks. The second cut started a month later, on Christmas Day, and was ready in a week.
The crews spent the entire month of February making a third cut through the ship’s engine room, a section that was paved with thicker steel. After the stress on the cutting status required extensive maintenance work, the rescue team stopped, whereby the cut was only about halfway completed.
They spent days moving the crane to the other end of the ship, where they began cutting a new section on May 7th while they considered plans to complete the unfinished one.
The ship’s steel turned out to be harder than expected and slowed the process down. Crews have paused to conduct additional inspections and maintenance, said Michael Himes, Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class, a spokesman for the Multiagency Command overseeing the demolition.
“If people wonder when it’s going to be ready, we’ll do it as quickly and safely as possible,” said Himes.
He said it was possible the last part of the ship could sail to the Scryard by June, the first month of hurricane season in the Atlantic. The workers have taken steps to make the cutting more efficient. They used torches to strip strips of the ship’s hull coating and form a guide for the cutting chain. They also use a large mechanical claw to pluck cars from inside the ship to shed weight before cutting and lifting sections.
Conservationists are concerned that the longer the shipwreck stays in St. Simons Sound, the greater the risk of pollution for the region’s waterways, beaches and saltwater marshes.
The site of the wreck is surrounded by a mesh lock that is said to contain debris for cleaning once the large sections have been removed. Boats equipped with skimmers and absorbent outriggers remain in readiness to mop up leaking oil or other pollutants.
However, bumpers, tires and other auto parts falling from the ship were found on the beaches. Birds were found covered in oil. And while most of the fuel has been drained from the ship’s tanks, there is concern that once the cutting chain cuts the ship’s fuel line, an estimated 166,500 liters (44,000 gallons) could be left.
“The longer something sits in the water, the ship or these cars, the more it collapses,” said Susan Inman, coast guard with the Altamaha Riverkeeper Conservation Group. “You have lead paint on your ship. You have all these plastic parts, hydraulic fluid.” A lot of these things will only be around for years. “
By the time the Golden Ray demolition began in November, the project had already been delayed for several months due to a busy hurricane season and a handful of coronavirus infections among members of the salvage team.
Ironically, the commanders of the wreckage insisted on removing the ship in large chunks because it should be faster. A year ago, the command fired its original salvage company because he wanted to break the ship into smaller parts because it would take too long. The berated company sued in federal court, but a judge refused to stop the recovery after agreeing that there was no time to lose.
Paul Hankins oversaw the planning of a smaller demolition of the Golden Ray until his employer, Donjon-SMIT, lost the job to a competitor. He has since left the company. If his team hadn’t been fired, Hankins said, the overturned ship would now be a reminder of the Georgia coast.
“We’d be done,” said Hankins. “Here we are a year later and they are nowhere near.”