Salvage team flees from burning ship

The salvage team on the grounded Jolly Rubino off the northern Kwazulu-Natal coast had to be evacuated on Wednesday due to the intensifying fire on board, Smit Salvage said.

The salvagers were safely evacuated by helicopter at 2.35pm, Smit said.

They were trying to remove the balance of the fuel in the starboard tanks and engine room via a ship-to-ship transfer after cracks in the vessel started to widen.

Smit said on Wednesday the situation on board the Jolly Rubino had deteriorated overnight, with the fire intensifying in certain areas. The crack in the starboard fuel tank allowed fuel to enter the cargo compartment, which ignited.

The fire then spread further from the middle of the ship back to the engine room bulkhead.

Conditions deteriorated during the morning and the salvage team had been trying to work amid high temperatures and excessive smoke.

Access to the engine room became extremely unsafe and salvagers working there had to use breathing apparatus due to the smoke and asbestos dust.

Two asbestos experts, who were flown to the ship on Wednesday morning, were unable to enter the engine room to investigate the threat to the salvagers.

The oil pollution patrol aircraft Kuswag VII reported on Wednesday that the oil emanating from the starboard side had decreased significantly, confirming that the fuel oil had been forced into the cargo holds and was fueling the fire, Smit said.

The crew had to abandon ship last week after failing to extinguish the onboard fire. The vessel ran aground last Thursday approximately 300 metres from the shore. Tons of oil had already leaked into the close inshore and surf-zone waters around the St Lucia wetland, a World Heritage Site.

The ship has more than 1 000 tons of oil on board, and the possibility of further spillage poses a serious threat to the sensitive marine and estuarine ecosystems of especially the Greater St Lucia wetland and some estuaries to the south.

The Mhlatuze estuary at Richards Bay sanctuary has extensive systems of mangroves, mudbanks and sandbanks, with large populations of wading birds. A sandbar could not be put in place to prevent oil from entering this estuary, as the currents were too strong. A pontoon oil boom was being put in place on Wednesday to block the estuary off.

A sandbar was also since constructed at Nhlabane estuary, just south of the stranded ship, where subsistent fishermen make a living out of a lake.

Ecologists are closely monitoring the humpback whale population off the affected coast. The animals are calving and in the middle of their annual migration from Mozambique, Jean Harris, regional ecologist of Kwazulu-Natal Wildlife said on Wednesday. – Sapa

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