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Hope Fading for Tanker's Missing

The Coast Guard will decide today whether to continue its search off the Virginia coast for 18 crew members. Six survived ship's blast.

March 01, 2004|Lisa Getter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Coast Guard searched the cold waters of the Atlantic until nightfall Sunday for 18 missing crew members of a 570-foot tanker that sank off the coast of Virginia, but found nosurvivors.

The Bow Mariner exploded Saturday evening, leaving three crew members dead, six who were rescued with injuries and 18 missing. The ship was loaded with ethanol.

Coast Guard officials were not optimistic that they would find any of the men, and said they would decide this morning whether to continue the search. The Norwegian owners of the ship said Sunday that they hoped to determine the cause of the blast soon. The Coast Guard is investigating, though all signs pointed to an accident.

"The explosion must have been significant for a ship of this size to sink. There were a lot of separate rooms that would have normally kept her afloat," said Jan Hammer, a senior vice president with Odfjell, the Oslo-based company that owns the ship. "I think it will be known today or tomorrow what caused it. We have some theories."

The Coast Guard received a radio call from the Bow Mariner at 6:10 p.m. Saturday, alerting them to the explosion about 55 miles east of Chincoteague, Va. "That was the last contact we had with them," said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Steve Carleton.

A Coast Guard helicopter picked up six survivors in a lifeboat Saturday night. Two were suffering from hypothermia because of the frigid temperatures of the Atlantic Ocean. Rescue efforts continued Sunday with two Coast Guard cutters, a motor lifeboat and air surveillance. "As long as there is hope, we will continue to search," Carleton said.

The Bow Mariner's 27-member crew included 24 Filipinos and three Greeks.

The survivors, all from the Philippines, were taken to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, where they were treated for petroleum contamination and exposure. Three of the men were released Sunday morning, and the others were in good condition and should be released soon, said hospital spokeswoman Vicki Gray. Two members of the Coast Guard, including a rescue swimmer, were also treated for petroleum contamination and released.

Gray said the crewmen, all in their 30s and 40s, spoke to their families by phone from the emergency room, where they were accompanied by the hospital chaplain. "They looked like they were just saturated in oil," she said.

The ship was carrying more than 3.5 million gallons of industrial ethanol, 193,000 gallons of fuel oil and 48,000 gallons of diesel fuel when it exploded.

The Singapore-flagged ship was on the way to Houston from New York, where it had unloaded 20,000 tons of MTBE, a fuel additive linked to groundwater contamination.

The Coast Guard said there was no immediate environmental threat from the lost ship, though it left a long, thick fuel-oil slick in its wake. The nine-square-mile slick was so far offshore that it probably would break up before reaching land, Carleton said.

The Bow Mariner was built in 1982 in Split in the former Yugoslavia. It was registered to a Singapore subsidiary of Odfjell and managed by Ceres Hellenic Shipping Enterprises in Greece. It had undergone a routine inspection in October in Philadelphia, where five "insignificant deficiencies" were found.

"These were corrected immediately and the ship sailed without delay," Odfjell reported on its website.

Odfjell, which transports and stores chemicals worldwide, has never lost a ship in its 45-year history, Hammer said. The company has 89 ships in its fleet. In a statement Sunday, the company said it was "deeply saddened that lives were lost when Bow Mariner sank."

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