Golden Ray cutting operations on hold after fire

May 16—Cutting operations are on hold as engineers moved in Saturday to make a post-fire assessment of the shipwrecked Golden Ray, the remains which became engulfed in thick black smoke and raging flames early Friday afternoon.

Salvors moved in with five firefighting tugboats that siphoned and poured thousands of gallons of saltwater into the burning steel carcass, extinguishing the fire Friday night, Unified Command announced at 9:11 p.m. The fire started as welders suspended from ropes were using welding torches to conduct precise cuts in the cutting path for Section 3, the fifth cut on what remains of the shipwreck.

"Fires are an unfortunate possibility given the dangerous conditions inside the wreck," said Gallagher Marine Systems' Chris Graff, an incident commander.

Officials believe one of the 6-foot-long welding torches ignited a vehicle in the cargo hold, said U.S. Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesperson for Unified Command. Stiff easterly winds blowing through the open ends quickly spread the fire to vehicles above the water line inside the roughly 300 feet of shipwreck remaining in the sound, Himes said. The 656-foot-long Golden Ray carried a cargo of 4,200 vehicles when it capsized on its port side Sept. 8, 2019, while heading out to sea. As much as half of those vehicles remained inside the steel hulk's 12 interior decks, Himes said.

"The majority of vehicles did catch fire above the water line," Himes said. "The source of the ignition was very likely our precutting on the cut groove along Sections 3 and 4. Due the wind, we suspect the ignition source was able to spread it to Sections 5 and 6. Easterly winds with strong gusts blew right through the ship."

Salvors opened a gate in the 1-mile perimeter environmental protection barrier surrounding the shipwreck as the smoke and flames expanded, allowing the five tugboats to get inside and apply steady streams of seawater into the fire.

Engineers are also assessing the damage to the VB 10,000, the twin-hulled crane vessel tasked with powering the cutting chain that tears its way up through the steel layers of the shipwreck, Himes said. The massive cutting chain was not in operation during the fire, although the twin-hulled VB 10,000 remained astride the shipwreck's eastern end throughout. Cutting with the chain paused Thursday so the rope access technicians (RATs) could get in with their welding torches. They were altering the cutting path slightly to avoid a steel mass that could have presented challenges for the cutting chain, he said.

The salvage master and a skeleton crew of firefighters remained on the VB 10,000 during the fire while all others crew members evacuated. That firefighting crew remained inside the vessel's operations room during the fire, maintaining steady streams of saltwater delivered by its automatic fire hose, Himes said.

"The temperatures inside were hot enough that the paint on the side of the ship bubbled off," Himes said. "The top of the ship is now white instead of blue."

The VB 10,000 crane vessel disconnected Saturday from the Golden Ray. At least one of the thick polymer lines that connect the crane vessel to the shipwreck's lifting lugs will require repairs, he said. Smoke damage is evident in several sections of the VB 10,000, he said.

The 255-foot-tall crane vessel was expected to move away from the shipwreck Sunday afternoon during slack tide, Himes said.

"We're assessing that right now," Himes said. "It was very clear that smoke had covered parts of the gantry (arches), the lifting beams look discolored and one of the Dyneema slings will have to be repaired."

The operation's oil pollution and debris cleanup teams have been on the water 24/7 throughout the weekend, monitoring for potential environmental effects of the fire, Himes said. Water samples "have not detected any exceedances of air quality standards," a Unified Command statement noted at 10:30 p.m. Friday.

Handheld air quality monitors maintained by Unified Command "zero detections of hazardous particulates in the air," Himes said.

Cleanup crews that police the local shorelines have recovered numerous "bits of black plastic that look melted, Himes said.

T&T Salvage had removed four sections of the shipwrecked Golden Ray before Friday.

The Section 3 operation was the first of four cuts marking a new phase. Previous cutting efforts have removed and transported the two exterior sections fore and the two exterior sections aft on the shipwreck. Naval engineers had deduced that the brunt of any damage to the ship's structure would have occurred in this middle section, Himes said.

The four outer sections were placed on standard narrower barges after being separated. The VB 10,000 hoists each section from the water. The barge then slides in between the crane vessel's two hulls, after which the crane vessel lowers the several-thousand-ton sections onto the deck.

Salvors will employ wider drydock barges to handle the removal of the middle sections. This is due to possible structural damage to these sections, Himes said.

The drydock barges will be a tight squeeze to fit between the VB 10,000's hulls, he said. But the wider barges will provide more stability, due in part to the broader distribution of ballast inside, Himes said. Drydock barges are less maneuverable. At present, the plan is to transport these middle sections to an area of Mayor's Point between the East River and Bay Street in Brunswick, where dismantling will take place. The outer sections all were sea-fastened at Mayor's Point, then transferred whole via barge to a recycling facility in Gibson, La.

Engineers will now inspect the shipwreck's remains to see what, if any, structural damage was inflicted to shipwreck. There is no telling at this point when cutting on the shipwreck Golden Ray might resume.

Smaller Bear Cub boats and the VB 10,000 continued deluging the shipwreck with seawater Sunday morning.

"The concern is the amount of heat the fire generated to the topside of the wreck," Himes said. "That's where the engineering team will be doing structura analysis."

Added Matt Cooke of T&T Salvage: "Once we are able to access the site safely, we will conduct a thorough analysis of the structural integrity of the wreck as well as all wreck removal equipment."

Unified Command consists of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marine Systems. It is responsible for ensuring that the salvage operation adheres to environmental protection standards established the by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

Anyone who finds suspected shipwreck debris along the shorelines is asked to call 912-944-5620. Anyone who detects suspected oil leaks from the shipwreck is asked to call 800-424-8802