Apr. 27—The engine section of the shipwreck Golden Ray hung suspended above the water Monday morning, its 6,300 tons held aloft like the spoils of victory in the arches of the towering VB 10,000 crane vessel.
After a three-month ordeal that included many setbacks and modifications in strategy, the VB 10,000 finally pulled the cutting chain at around sunup Saturday through the last dense vestiges of steel that held the engine section to the rest of the shipwreck.
The barge 455-7 chugged out from the Brunswick River at around 11 a.m. Monday, escorted by tugboats to pick up the steel reinforced engine section.
Later Monday afternoon, the barge slid beneath the VB 10,000, which lowered the section into a cradle specially made for it on the barge deck.
Salvors planned to work through the night Monday to further secure the section to the barge deck, after which it will likely head back at the first slack tide Tuesday to Brunswick's East River, said U.S. Coast Guardman Michael Himes, spokesman for Unified Command. .
Dispatching with Section 7 leaves three more cuts and four remaining pieces of the Golden Ray to be removed from the sound. The very first cut began in early November. What remains of the shipwreck looks more like a big piece of scrap metal than the remnants of a 656-foot-long capsized freighter.
Officials with T&T Salvage and Unified Command had reason for optimism and elation after separating Section 7, which doggedly thwarted cutting efforts with its thick reinforced steel supporting the Golden Ray's engine. But it marks a turning point in the salvaging of the Golden Ray, which overturned Sept. 8, 2019, while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles.
Roughly 300 feet remains of the half-submerged shipwreck between Jekyll and St. Simons islands.
"We achieved a major milestone by picking up the toughest section of the Golden Ray," Mauricio Garrido, president of Texas-based T&T Salvage, said at a press conference Monday. "We've got three more cuts to go. We've implemented everything we've learned on every cut. As you all notice, there is a difference in the Golden Ray out there. It's about half of what it was."
U.S. Coast Guard Commander Efren Lopez noted that more that a million total work hours have been put into the salvage operation thus far. Despite the dangers involved with the operation, there have been no serious injuries, he said.
"Our plan has always been to restore the sound to its original status," said Lopez, the federal on-scene coordinator for Unified Command. "The Golden Ray is now half of its original size. We are going to continue removing it from the sound."
Garrido tempered his optimism with the reality that it will still take some time to remove what remains of the shipwreck.
"Our plan really?" Garrido said. "We're going to be here for several more months. But everything we've learned, especially from Section 7, will continue to contribute to our knowledge on what is to come."
Salvors began cutting on Section 7 on Jan. 27. A chain break on Feb. 26 marked the fifth work stoppage due to equipment failure. After that, salvors opted for a strategic retreat from Section 7 to focus on a section at the shipwreck's foremost end.
Salvors did not resume cutting again on Section 7 until the first weekend in April. Three more weeks would pass before the cutting chain would sheer its way completely through the vessel.
Salvors had switched out the grade 4-steel cutting chain for grade 5 steel, the strongest mooring chain made. The steel support around the engine section was nearly 2 inches thick in some places, "more than double the thickness we normally encounter," Himes said.
Section 7 was by far the most challenging cut for T&T Salvage.
Cutting and removing the remaining four sections very likely will take the project through the June 1 start of hurricane season. Unified Command has planned for that, Lopez said. The plan includes securing the work site before a tropical weather system approaches and shutting down until the threat has passed, he said.
Barring that, salvors plan to work right through hurricane season until the job is complete.
"As we know, hurricane season is approaching," Lopez said. "We have no intention of shutting down operations. We will shut down during the threat and we do have a heavy weather plan."
The engine section presented oil pollution issues that have not panned out. Unified Command suspected many thousands of gallons of oil might remain in the shipwreck's fuel lines. All fuel lines lead to the engine.
But the fuel line to the engine was severed during the cut and completely separated during the lift.
Oil leaks over the weekend and on Monday have not been significant. Some heavy oil leaked, but all of it was maintained within the 1 mile environmental protection barrier surrounding the shipwreck. It was addressed with oil skimmers and current busters, V-shaped craft placed at either end of the barrier to corral and collect oil. Light oil sheens that made it outside the barrier were caught by the flotilla of cleanup crews employing skimmers and absorbent boom.
"What we're not seeing is massive quantities of oil coming out of the ship. Everything is very well contained. The likelihood of anything significant being further discharged is greatly reduced now that we've removed the engine."
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.