Final Four Crewman Rescued from the Golden Ray


(Photo: Stephen B. Morton/ AP)

Natalie Kees

Earlier last week, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued the final four trapped crewmen from the Golden Ray, a Korean cargo ship that had capsized. The ship turned along the Georgia coast last Sunday morning, where it had recently departed from the Port of Brunswick. Rescue teams stepped in right as the 2 a.m. emergency call went out and arrived to find the cargo ship, which was said to be as large as a seven-story building, completely turned over on its side.

Twenty of the crewmen on board were found that morning, and the rescue continued until Monday morning, when the remaining trapped crewmen were found severely dehydrated and covered in sweat and oil. All of the crewmen are expected to be okay, but now that they’re safe and out of the overturned ship, two big questions still have not yet to be answered:  “how did the massive boat capsize?” and “what is to be done with it now?”

According to Peter Golez, the former director of the National Transportation Safety Board, there were no massive rocks in the dredged channel that could have torn a hole in the ship’s hull. He has no way of knowing how enough water got inside the massive ship to be able to sink it so quickly.

“The load of cars [on the ship] could have shifted,” Golez says. “But it would take a major change in weight distribution to topple the 656-foot ship.”

The Golden Ray is a “RoRo” — a roll on, roll off ship designed with massive doors so cars and trucks can easily be driven on and off. Another possibility is that one of those doors wasn’t properly secured, Golez commented.

The weather does not appear to be a factor. Hurricane Dorian moved against the Georgia coast with tropical-storm force winds as it passed offshore, but that was four days before the Golden Ray overturned. After the storm passed, the ACE (Army Corps of Engineers) inspected the shipping channel between the Brunswick port and the Atlantic Ocean to look for any obstructions in the storm’s wake that might slow ship traffic. They found none, and National Weather Service records show clear skies and calm conditions during the time the ship left Brunswick.

Capt. John Reed, the section commander of the Coast Guard for the Charleston, has said the Golden Ray was making a turn before it capsized. Satellite data recorded by the ship-tracking website Marine Traffic shows an inbound ship passing the Golden Ray around the same time it overturned in St. Simons Sound.

“If the ship was turning at a high enough speed, the Golden Ray may have listed just enough to set off a chain reaction of events that ultimately pulled the ship down,” said Brandon Taravella, a professor at the University of New Orleans’ school for naval architecture and marine engineering.

All of the crew was safely retrieved from the ship, but now, sitting at the bottom of a channel of the coast of Georgia, is a cargo ship filled with cars. The oil is starting to break down, which has locals and safety officials worried.

Commander Norm C. Witt, the commanding officer at Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit Savannah, warned that the full operation of securing and removing the Golden Ray could take months. “I would say that each step of the way, we’re continuing to redefine our plans as we learn more about the condition of the ship and trying to make sure that our processes are as safe and effective as possible,” he said. “This is definitely something that we want to get right the first time.”

The Port of Brunswick remained closed Tuesday. It’s the second-busiest automobile port in the country, according to figures from the Georgia Ports Authority. This presents a major issue, since the Golden Ray has prevented several ships from shipping cargo to and from the port. In addition to shipping, the region relies on tourism and fishing as major economic drivers. The Altamaha River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean near Brunswick, is central to the local economy. Residents described a slick coating on the water in the area with an ‘oily sheen’ Tuesday. This has also had an effect on the marine life near the port. People have said no wildlife is visible where the oily sheen is on the water, with the exception of birds that land on it.

Authorities said they were ‘cautiously optimistic’ that there wouldn’t be a major oil spill. But like any large ship, the Golden Ray is filled with oil and other lubricants. There are also 4,200 cars and vehicles inside. “So this is a piece of equipment, and it is positioned in the water not in a way that it was designed to,” Witt said. “The vessel is on its side, and it’s not designed to be on its side. We will have some pollution.” The rescue itself would be a complex exercise in managing risk to salvage the Golden Ray while protecting the environment and moving swiftly enough to limit commercial damage. “There’s always risk in the things we do, and we had to balance that risk,” Capt. Reed stated. The operation to deal with the wreckage of the Golden Ray as the Coast Guard tries to figure out how the environmental impacts involved as well as how to actually pull the ship out.