The new year has begun the same way the last one did in St. Simons Sound. The M/V Golden Ray is still there.
To be fair, not all of the capsized car carrier remains off the coast of the Port of Brunswick, Georgia. Two of eight sections have been cut off and at some point in 2021, all traces of the 2019 accident should be gone.
St. Simons Sound Incident Response is indeed responsive to inquiries and posts regular updates on the mission to cut apart the vessel, which was transporting about 4,300 vehicles when it ran aground and capsized while departing the Port of Brunswick at approximately 1 a.m. Sept. 8, 2019.
The latest update was issued Sunday and said work to separate the stern had been completed Saturday night. The cutting operation for that section had begun more than a week earlier, on Christmas Day.
That section will be transported out of St. Simons Sound by barge. The response unit said last week that the barge was nearing the coast of Louisiana en route to the recycling facility with the Golden Ray’s bow, the first section that was cut. Once that section is delivered, the barge will return to Brunswick for the stern.
The dismantling is being carried out by Gallagher Marine Systems, the acting responsible party for Hyundai Glovis, the South Korean shipping and logistics company that operated the Golden Ray.
It is not easy to take apart a 656-foot-long roll-on/roll-off vessel. (For perspective, Seattle’s Space Needle is 604 feet tall.) Each of the eight sections weighs between 2,700 and 4,100 tons. The length of the 400-foot cutting chain has to be adjusted throughout the operation to maintain a constant upward force. The chain is mounted on a heavy-lift VB-10,000, which is equipped with two 225-foot-tall gantry cranes and must be positioned over each section to be cut. Divers then drill drainage holes along the section to be cut.
The response team knew that each cut and lift would take at least a week in “ideal conditions.” Conditions are rarely ideal.
In November, as the first cut was being made, the chain broke. Work came to a stop as the chain was retrieved and repaired. Each link of the chain is 18 inches long and weighs more than 80 pounds.
The coronavirus has further complicated the wreck removal. A Dec. 22 update said a worker who had previously tested positive for COVID-19 had been cleared by medical personnel to return to the job.
“While at the response, personnel continue to follow guidance to limit exposure to COVID-19, which includes face coverings, safe distancing and remote working when possible, daily temperature checks for all members and continuous disinfection of facilities and platforms,” the update said. “All incoming personnel are mandated to sequester and receive a negative COVID-19 test prior to working.”
The VB-10,000 had arrived in nearby Fernandina, Florida, in early July. It was to undergo final outfitting and then be moved to St. Simons Sound. The project was sidelined when 10 salvage crew members tested positive for COVID-19. Then possible impacts from the Atlantic hurricane season pushed back removal of the wreckage. In early October, St. Simons Sound Incident Response issued a notification that the project was being postponed yet again because of “engineering challenges.”
The St. Simons Sound Incident Response Unified Command, made up of Gallagher Marine Systems, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, was formed after the accident to address safety and environmental issues, including the removal of about 300,000 gallons of fuel from the Golden Ray’s tanks. Environmental monitoring and cleanup have continued since the capsizing.
“Responders continue to observe and mitigate oil sheens, small oil discharges and debris on the water in the vicinity of the wreck,” last week’s update said. “Shoreline teams continue to recover residual oil and debris on Jekyll Island and St. Simons Island.”
The response team determined by mid-October 2019 that it was not possible to safely right the Golden Ray and began developing plans to disassemble the vessel in place.
The Golden Ray had called Freeport, Texas, and Jacksonville, Florida, before sailing for the Port of Brunswick. During a Coast Guard-conducted hearing in September to determine the cause of the capsizing, the pilot who was guiding the Golden Ray out of St. Simons Sound testified there were “no pre-event indicators whatsoever” prior to the incident. But a naval architect testified that an accident investigation revealed the ro-ro carrier’s ballast level was not compliant with stability regulations when it fell on its side.
A decision in the case has not been announced.