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Video: Tanker explosion halts relief efforts

Wed 10 Jan 2018 by Jamey Bergman

Video: Tanker explosion halts relief efforts
The strength of the blaze raging on board Sanchi has made rescue and environmental containment work difficult (credit: Ministry of Transport, People’s Republic of China)

An explosion on the Iranian-owned tanker that has been burning in the East China Sea for several days after colliding with a bulk carrier has forced a suspension of firefighting and recovery efforts.

China's Ministry of Transport said vessels attending the stricken Sanchi withdrew after an explosion on the tanker's bow.

"At 1110 hours [local time, 10 January], the Deep Divergence, Tak Shing and East Sea Rescue 101 arrived near the shipwreck to start the spraying of foam fire-fighting operations. At 1335 hours, due to the deflagration (combustion) of the Sanchi ferry, on-site vessels suspended fire fighting operations and evacuated to a safe distance."

The report came after the vessel's owner, the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) said Sanchi was unlikely to sink.

The body of what the NITC believe to be one of its crew members, an Iranian national, has been recovered but has yet to be identified. On Tuesday (9 January) NITC reportedly told Bloomberg that some of Sanchi's 31 crew members who remain missing could still be alive in the tanker's engineroom, which lies some 14 m below the waterline and "is not directly affected by the fire." 

Previous statements from China's transport ministry have said the toxicity of the smoke and fierce heat generated by the burning ultra-light crude oil condensate carried by Sanchi (see photo above and video below) has hampered rescue workers, who have been forced to wear biohazard "protective suits, protective masks and [use] gas testing equipment".

Editor's note: The video below contains profanity. 

The Chinese transport ministry's news feed confirmed the Panama-flagged Sanchi tanker and Hong Kong-registered freighter CF Crystal collided some 260 km off the coast of Shanghai, where the Yangtze River enters the East China Sea.   

The collision between the two vessels happened at 1600 on 6 January and caused a fire to engulf Sanchi, which is carrying some 136,000 tonnes of highly volatile condensate ultra-light crude, or the equivalent of about 1M barrels of oil. CF Crystal sustained significant damage to its bow in the crash (see photo below, courtesy of Ministry of Transport, People’s Republic of China) and has been escorted to an anchoring point for investigation.Crew from Sanchi – 29 Iranians and 2 Bangladeshis – remain missing, and the transport ministry said that the 21 Chinese crew from CF Crystal have all been rescued.

International search efforts have involved numerous Chinese vessels, a South Korean coast guard vessel and a fixed-wing aircraft. The US Navy has also provided support. To date, at least 14 vessels have been involved in firefighting and search and rescue efforts in the incident, according to the Ministry of Transport. 

As of Tuesday (9 January), search efforts were focused on a 900 square mile section of the East China Sea. The transport ministry said that, thus far, a large-scale oil spill had not been discovered.

IMO secretary-general Kitack Lim issued a statement regarding the incident on Monday (8 January), saying “This is an ongoing situation which we are monitoring. IMO stands ready to offer any technical assistance that may be needed. In the longer term, it is expected that there will be a full investigation into this incident and that the results and findings will be brought to IMO so that we can do whatever may be necessary to reduce the chances of such an incident happening again.”

The IMO leader expressed his support and sympathies to the missing seafarers and their families while commending those involved in search and rescue efforts.The 164,000 DWT Sanchi was headed to South Korea from Iran, and 75,000 DWT CF Crystal was bound for Guangdong, China, carrying 64,000 tonnes of grain from the United States.

The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF) told Tanker Shipping and Trade its representative had arrived in Shanghai on Monday but that much remained uncertain with Sanchi still ablaze.

"Overall, there still appears to be plenty of questions and unknowns regarding the incident but hopefully we will know more in the coming days," ITOPF technical manager Mark Whittington said.

Steamship Mutual P&I, which confirmed it covers the third-party liability for Sanchi, has not prepared comment on the collision or the resulting fire, saying the incident would be treated as standard and that ITOPF's evaluation would be used in its technical assessment of the investigation.

According to the VesselsValue database, Sanchi is owned by the National Iranian Tanker Company and CF Crystal is owned by the Changhong Group HK Ltd. In August 2016, an Iranian-owned tanker collided with a container ship in the Singapore Strait with no injuries or environmental contamination.   

An official from South Korea's Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries was quoted in a Reuters report as saying the fire could last for weeks. 

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