BEIJING/SEOUL (Reuters) – Strong winds, high waves and toxic gases are hindering dozens of rescue boats struggling to locate missing sailors from a stricken oil tanker in the East China Sea and to extinguish a fire that has burned for the past three days on the ship.
The poor conditions, with rain and waves as high as three metres, frustrated efforts to tame the fire and search for the 31 remaining tanker crew members, China’s ministry of transport said in a statement yesterday.
The flames were forcing the South Korean Coast Guard’s search and rescue team to stay as far as 4.8 kilometres away from the tanker, two South Korean officials said.
The Chinese government said late yesterday it had not found a “large-scale” oil leak, and the ultra light oil, known as condensate, was burning off or evaporating so quickly it would leave little residue – less than 1 percent – within five hours of a spill. That reduces the chances of a crude-style oil slick.
Still, condensate is highly volatile when exposed to air and water and concerns were growing the tanker could explode and sink while a flotilla of 13 search and rescue vessels comb a 3,100 sq km area for the crew.
The tanker Sanchi, run by Iran’s top oil shipping operator, National Iranian Tanker Co, collided on Saturday with the CF Crystal, carrying grain from the US, about 300km off China’s coast near Shanghai and the mouth of the Yangtze River Delta.
The Sanchi was carrying 136,000 tonnes of condensate to South Korea, equivalent to about 1 million barrels and worth about $60 million.
Chinese state media CCTV showed footage on Monday of boats dousing the flames with water as plumes of thick dark smoke continued to billow from the tanker.
The size of the oil spill from the ship and the extent of the environmental harm were not known, but the disaster has the potential to be the worst since 1991 when 260,000 tonnes of oil leaked off the Angolan coast.
“We can’t grasp the level of oil contamination at this moment. The cargo is still on fire, so it is hard to figure out if oil is being spilled,” Park Sung-dong, an official from South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, said. The CF Crystal suffered limited damage and the 21 crew members, all Chinese nationals, were rescued by a passing fishing trawler on Saturday night, according to a report posted by state-owned Xinhua News to its Twitter account yesterday.
“The fire was so fierce. It kept exploding like bombs. So loud,” said Zhu Tingwen, a sailor on the fishing boat.
The trawler from Zhejiang province scoured for survivors on the tanker, but could not get close enough because of the fire, Xinhua said.
Satellite imagery of the ship showed the blaze has weakened since the weekend, although the strong winds are dragging the tanker away from the Chinese coast, according to Greenpeace.
Between Sunday and Monday, the floating inferno travelled some 50km southeast, according to Rashid Kang, campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia.