Skip to comments.Albany Ship Disaster - 3 feared lost in port drama
Posted on 12/10/2003 5:58:30 AM PST by NYer
Three crew members remained missing this morning after a Dutch cargo ship listed and partially sank at the Port of Albany at about 3 p.m. Tuesday. The accident involving the Stellamare tossed several men into the icy waters of the Hudson River and prompted the Coast Guard to close the river, left the ship tilted at a 50-degree angle, and may have killed three seamen.
It marks the city's worst maritime accident in decades.
The ship's 18-man crew was loading the second of two General Electric generators, each weighing roughly 250 tons, when the boat listed to port, rolled and became partially submerged in about 30 feet of water. Several crewmen had to be pulled from the frigid river.
No sounds of life have been heard inside the vessel since then, and three crewmen are unaccounted for. The 289-foot Stellamare is a heavy lift ship out of Willemstad, Curacao, in the Netherlands Antilles.
"When they picked up the piece and started to move it over the hatch, the ship started to lean and it got away from them," said Paul Fisher, a retired foreman with the port's longshoremen's crew who said he spoke with a dozen of his former colleagues after the accident. "Somebody screwed up."
"Our guys were screaming, 'Stop!' There wasn't enough ballast on the inshore side and they kept screaming, 'Stop!' But there was some kind of language barrier and they didn't stop."
A preliminary look found no oil spill, the state Department of Environmental Conservation reported.
Albany Fire Battalion Chief Bill Hummel said the call for help from the port was so unusual that dispatcher Ken Marks made a special phone call to him as well.
"He told me I wouldn't believe it, but it was a big cargo ship that turned over," the chief said. "Even when we got to the scene and I saw it, but I couldn't believe it. Twenty-eight years on the job next month, and this is the weirdest."
Firefighters worked with the stevedores on shore. "They (stevedores) already had one man out when we got there, but we got the other three with the tugs. That was a great save by the guys."
Fisher said longshoremen often operate the cranes aboard ship, but never on the Stellamare, which typically has a highly regarded crew skilled with the cranes.
On Tuesday, two Stellamare crane operators were working the shipboard cranes in tandem, coordinated by a chief officer or captain via radio, he said. Longshoremen were aboard the ship to observe the lift, but did not direct it or operate the cranes, he said.
"When you work by sight, hand signals are universal and everyone understands them," Fisher said. "The radio must have caused the communication breakdown."
As the afternoon unfolded, attempts to search the ship for the missing seamen, believed to be inside the hull, proved fruitless as darkness, receding tides and the absence of an interior ship diagram hampered divers from the city, county and state. The divers wore "dry suits" to protect them from the frigid waters. Still, their work was curtailed by the cold.
Generators loaded onto the ship are usually placed on a metal holding platform, then welded into place to prevent shifting, said Deacon Dick Walker of the Albany Maritime Ministry.
Meanwhile, four Stellamare crewmen from St. Petersburg, Russia, ranging in age from 28 to 53, were taken by ambulance to St. Peters' Hospital with cuts and exposure. Dr. Samuel Bosco, chief of emergency medicine, said they clearly were removed from the water quickly, because hypothermia could have occurred within minutes. All were expected to be discharged.
Two patients were taken to Albany Medical Center Hospital. One was from New Jersey, the other from Russia. They were expected to be admitted. Albany Memorial Hospital also treated patients, including a Russian man who spent several minutes in the water and feared his friend may have succumbed. None of the sailors had life-threatening injuries.
A nearby tugboat, the Rhea I. Bouchard, plucked one man from the icy waters and another from the hull of the ship. Water temperature in the Hudson was estimated at close to 32. Even if uninjured, a human cannot survive more than several minutes in water that cold, medical experts said.
The boat, bound for Italy and Romania, was already holding 600 tons of cargo when it started taking on water, said Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings. The Stellamare is owned by Jumbo Shipping Co., a worldwide shipping company. A company spokesman said its Russian representative contacted the seamen's families Tuesday.
By early evening, the U.S. Coast Guard had taken official command of the scene. The Coast Guard sent a 49-foot rescue boat from Saugerties to the port and an investigative team by land from New York City, Petty Officer Mike Lutz said.
The river current, which had been increased by the outgoing tide, slowed to pond-quiet about 1 a.m. just after low tide. It was then that the "Empire," a small work boat, began to move around the ship, breaking up accumulating snow and ice.
The "Empire" was under contract to Clean Harbors Environmental Services, which was in charge of any pollution control. Throughout the night and into the early morning hours of Wednesday, Clean Harbors crews scurried into the dock area, bringing in equipment and setting up for what appeared to be an extended period of salvage.
Federal Marine Terminals Inc., which oversees cargo loading and unloading at the Port of Albany, will aid the investigation, said Paul Gourdeau, executive vice president. He said he believes the ship's crew was hoisting cargo aboard with the vessel's onboard crane when the ship began listing.
"The reason for this happening, I don't know at this point," he said, in a phone interview from his office in Montreal. "It will probably take a long time to investigate fully."
Gourdeau said Federal Marine employees were dockside at the time of the accident. None were injured. Federal Marine is the Montreal-based company that has managed loading and unloading at the port since 1996, when it acquired Meehan Overseas Terminal's operations in Albany and elsewhere. It manages cargo at seven other U.S. and Canadian ports.
The company employs three people full-time at the Albany port, and hires on dozens of workers from Local 1294 of the International Longshoremen's Association to handle the cargo.
Gourdeau said there have been no other similar accidents at ports under its watch, and that he was not aware of any safety problems at the Albany facility.
During the night, a large Dumpster-type container, bigger than a trailer truck, was hauled in by a tow truck and later a mobile-home-sized office was also brought on site by another tow truck. Clean Harbors vehicles also brought in at least two small workboats on trailers, apparently to have them ready for launch at daybreak.
Several booms used to contain pollutants in water were being readied overnight, but there was no sign that any fuel oil had leaked from the ship.
Coast Guardsmen made regular patrols along the docks, often pausing to apparently take laser measurements of the ship to see if the rising and falling tides had caused the Stellamare to shift.
The port remained closed to all traffic early this morning a mile north and south. Sound-monitoring equipment at three spots on the hull was turned off shortly before 11 p.m., Jennings said.
Fisher, who said he has been involved in a hundred or more heavy lifts over the years, including many aboard the Stellamare, speculated the generator that set off the chain reaction never made it aboard, but sank to the bottom of the Hudson after the cranes failed.
"It will be a massive recovery effort to remove those heavy pieces and right the ship," Fisher said.
In the stillness of the night, ice floes on the water could be heard cracking and crunching into each other. Most of the ice was created by truckloads of snow being dumped by the city and state at the Snow Dock, upstream of the capsize site.
Albany -- Carson Rock, a ship's cook from Barbados, dashed on deck of the Columbia as the adjacent Stellamare tilted dangerously low toward the Hudson River, at the Port of Albany. He'd sailed the world for 28 years, but he'd never seen anything like this.
Seventy-five yards away, two of the Stellamare's cranes had lifted what looked to Rock like an engine, the size of a railroad car, over the middle of the ship.
When it got to the center, said crew members on the Columbia, a 330-foot channel dredger docked just south, the 289-foot Stellamare began to roll slowly, almost silently, and turn away from the dock, sinking on its side in the ice-choked waters of the Hudson River.
"Once she went to rollin' (it) never stopped," Columbia mate Phil Mones said. That was 3:04 p.m.
The capsizing cargo ship flung one man operating the crane into the water. He wore a heavy orange jacket, but no flotation vest, crew mates said. As the man gripped a chunk of wood in the river, the crane operator clung to Stellamare's hull.
With one man in the water and one clinging to the hull, the Columbia's crew raced into action. Capt. Stephen Taylor called the tug Rhea I. Bouchard, docked about 400 yards south, across the Hudson. Mones, a mate from New Orleans, and another man grabbed a litter used to retrieve men who fall overboard. Others leapt from their own ship onto the docks and headed for the Stellamare. Anyone trapped in the 32 water wouldn't have much time.
Blood smeared the crane operator's head and eye as he bobbed in the river.
"I don't think they had the ballast set right," said Ron Cross, a welder and independent contractor who'd helped detach the two giant General Electric generators from a rail car that afternoon.
One generator was in the hold when he ship rolled, Cross said. The other, slightly heavier unit was on the ship's crane. The ship was big enough to handle the cargo, he added, "but it's the smallest ship I've seen here for a (load) that big."
At roughly 3:05, the crew of the Rhea I. Bouchard, a tug from New York City, tossed a bright red life ring to the man in the water. The Columbia crew watched. Bleeding from numerous wounds, they said, he could barely pull the ring around his body.
"They really did a job getting that guy out of the water," Mones said.
Next, the tug motored over to pluck the second crane operator from his perch on Stellamare's hull.
Loaded onto a stretcher, the first crane operator, who spoke only broken English, appeared coherent but shaken and hypothermic, Mones said.
By 4 p.m., Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings was on the dock to brief reporters.
"We have about three people that are unaccounted for," he said, as divers prepared to search the surrounding waters and the hull.
"Not hearing anything, and not knowing the layout of the ship, we decided not to endanger our divers," Jennings told reporters. "We remain optimistic."
As darkness fell around 4:30 p.m., members of the Columbia's 16-man crew huddled in their galley to drink tea out of Styrofoam cups and speculate whether the three men believed trapped in the hull of Stellamare were still alive. Others stood topside and watched the rescue efforts. Anyone caught underwater in the hold of the ship couldn't survive, they knew. Inside the ship would be pitch black. If these guys are down there, some said, they're dead. There's nowhere they can go where the water couldn't go.
After high tide at 5:27 p.m., the tide began to move out, making the situation dangerous for divers. Heavy lines holding the capsized boat to the dock were already taut.
At 5:38 p.m., U.S. Coast Guard helicopters scanned the Hudson with search lights as rescue crews prepared to bring an underwater camera inside the ship. Minutes later, authorities pulled out divers, fearing they'd be trapped by the shifting tide.
At 6:30 p.m., rescue workers placed listening devices on the hull of the ship. Nothing.
By 9:45 p.m., nearly seven hours had passed with no sign of life, no shout, no tapping, no sound from inside the Stellamare. In the quieting dark, as the Coast Guard interviewed the Stellamare cook, Sergei, and other survivors on a CDTA bus parked near the wharf, a sense of resignation began to seep in at the port's Seafarer's Center.
The Albany Maritime Ministry, which operates the welcome center, called in Father Theophylact, Russian Orthodox monk from Herkimer, to minister to crewmen and perhaps to deliver last rights.
"We're beginning to lose hope," said Deacon Dick Walker.
Survival is measured in minutes in icy water
Even if dressed for winter weather, a person in near-freezing water has only a short time to survive, doctors said.
"You're talking about minutes before you lose the ability to keep yourself above water," explained Dr. Vincent Zeccolo, medical director of the Ellis Hospital Emergency Department.
While there have been cases where young people have survived being submerged in very cold water for a half-hour or more, "older people don't have as good a chance."
Heavy clothing may be of little help, he said. Once that clothing gets wet, it's as if they weren't wearing any clothes, Zeccolo said.
The only hope for the missing crewmen, he said, would be to get into an air pocket. There, they could probably survive overnight, "if they're not wet." In wet clothing, survivability drops because water conducts body heat away up to 26 times faster than air of the same temperature.
Hypothermia occurs as the surrounding environment draws heat away from the body. Should the body's core temperature drop below 92, various body functions begin to shut down. The person loses consciousness, breathing slows and, lastly, the heart stops beating.
The doctor said there are many variables that go into the length of time for survivability, such as the age of the victim, physical condition and what they are wearing. If the three missing men were wearing special weather exposure suits, the time they could survive in water could go from minutes to more than an hour.
Ship's crew members taken to St. Peter's Hospital couldn't have been in the cold river long because they did not suffer any hypothermia, said Dr. Samuel Bosco, chief of emergency medicine. He estimated that within 10 minutes in water of 40 -- about 8 warmer than the Hudson River on Tuesday -- hypothermia would set in.
Even some people who do experience severe hypothermia can sometimes be revived from near death as they warm up because of the protective effects of the cold for the brain and the heart, Bosco said.
The slow breathing and heart rate of extreme hypothermia can even mimic death, leaving uncertainty about a person's condition until their temperature is brought back cup.
"We frequently say in our business that someone isn't dead until they are warm and dead," Bosco said. Staff writer Cathy Woodruff contributed to this report.
I steer clear of boats.
According to the dock foreman, there was a communication problem; the crew spoke 'only' Russian (saw an interview with one of the Russian crew this morning and he was speaking English!). Anyway, the foreman claims that he noticed the slight tilt and tried to stop them from loading any more turbines but they did not understand his commands.
Who is in charge of such an operation?
ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) _ Authorities will resume their search for three missing crew members after a Dutch cargo ship turned partly on its side on the Hudson River while steel turbines were being loaded. Fifteen others were rescued, with some suffering hypothermia.
The search was to continue Wednesday morning in the icy waters at the Port of Albany. Officials were unsure if the missing crew members were in the ship or if they went overboard into the river, where temperatures dipped to near 20 degrees overnight. ``We believe they're in the hull of the ship,'' based on interviews with other crew members, said Detective James Miller of the Albany police. But he said it's also possible they're in the river.
The ship's owner, Jumbo Shipping Co., hired salvage divers who used a small boat Wednesday morning to see if the ship was stable. Once that was determined, divers from the Albany police and fire departments were sent into the water to search for the missing men, Miller said.
The 289-foot Stellamare, flagged in the Dutch Antilles, had loaded 661 tons of General Electric steel turbines bound for Italy and Romania, Albany Mayor Gerald Jennings said. The ship tipped over as a 308-ton generator was being loaded around 3:10 p.m. Tuesday, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. Eight members of the 18-person crew were removed from the river, Miller said. Seven others were rescued from the ship, some by helicopter. One crew member was upgraded to serious condition, and another to fair condition, at Albany Medical Center, hospital officials said. One man was treated and released.
As the ship started taking on water Tuesday night, city police and fire department rescue divers were pulled from the river for their safety, authorities said. State police used a listening device to try to detect any sound or movement in the ship, which remained tethered to the dock at a sharp angle and appeared to be stable Tuesday night. Officials said they received no positive feedback from the device.
The Coast Guard, which took over the investigation, sent a 49-foot rescue boat up the river from Saugerties, about 40 miles south, said Chief Petty Officer Dave French. The Hudson River was closed, and the Coast Guard secured a 1-mile stretch area around the ship. The ship is part of a fleet of eleven heavy-lift vessels ships belonging to Netherland-based Jumbo. The company's web address, www.jumboship.nl is painted on the side of the ship's hull. Jumbo officials said the crew was Russian.
The river current, which had been increased by the outgoing tide, slowed to pond-quiet about 1 a.m. just after low tide.
Coast Guardsmen made regular patrols along the docks, often pausing to apparently take laser measurements of the ship to see if the rising and falling tides had caused the Stellamare to shift.
There are tides in the Hudson River as far north as Albany?
661 tons plus adding another 308 tons? Does that sound accurate? Seems like an awful lot of weight....
Just curious - to what extent does tide play a factor? Also, here is the latest news, posted at 2:17pm.
Rescue crews are back to work at the Port of Albany this morning -- fighting the frigid Hudson River to search for three missing crew members of a Dutch cargo ship.
A massive crane has been situated near the vessel -- Tuesday the crane was part of the operation and recovery. This morning it was used to pickup a tug boat -- the Erin Miller. It is being used to probe the area around the ship.
A Coast Guard vessel has been moving around the waters to see how close it can get to the ship without disrupting the position of the vessel.
The Coast Guard Commander said that crews have been working hard to make sure that the water pollution from the diesel fuel is kept to a minimum. He said officials are optimistic that pollution will be limited due to the lower tide that is expected later today.
Officials also said that weight limits didn't appear to be exceeded, so another big part of this operation is trying to find out exactly what went wrong.
The Port of Albany is closed for a one-mile radius around the ship -- no boats in or out. There are several boats sitting at the one-mile line waiting for instructions.
A commercial dive crew is at the scene. They have resumed the dive operations that began Tuesday.
Fifteen of the 18 crew members were accounted for after the accident Tuesday afternoon. Search teams are not sure if the three missing men remained inside the ship, or went overboard into the frigid waters of the Hudson River.
The vessel, which had come from the Netherlands, was being loaded with 600 tons of turbine equipment bound for Italy and Romania when the cargo shifted and caused the barge to capsize.
Although the primary concern for officials is locating the three missing crew members, a great deal of attention has also been focused on the environmental factors as a result of this incident.
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