China calls deadly tanker collision 'unprecedented'

FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, photo provided by China's Ministry of Transport, firefighting boats work to put on a blaze on the oil tanker Sanchi in the East China Sea off the eastern coast of China. A Chinese official said Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, that the explosion and sinking of an Iranian oil tanker in the East China Sea was without precedent, creating enormous difficulties for rescue and recovery efforts. (Ministry of Transport via AP, File)

A Chinese official says the explosion and sinking of an Iranian oil tanker in the East China Sea was without precedent, creating enormous difficulties for rescue and recovery efforts

BEIJING — The deadly explosion and sinking of an Iranian oil tanker in the East China Sea was without precedent and created enormous difficulties for rescue and recovery efforts, a Chinese official said Friday.

The sinking of the Sanchi after a Jan. 6 high seas collision with a grain freighter was one of the worst maritime disasters in recent years, with all 32 sailors on board believed lost.

It was also a first for a tanker carrying natural gas condensate, Zhi Guanglu (Jer Gwong-LOO), head of the transport ministry's emergency response department, told reporters.

"There was no precedent for this accident," Zhi said. "We are still facing enormous difficulties and many challenges."

Only three bodies of the crew of 30 Iranians and two Bangladeshis were recovered. All 21 crew members of the freighter were reported safe and the cause of the collision and ensuing fire is under investigation.

Cleanup efforts continue, with ships and planes monitoring oil leaking from the sunken vessel. China's State Oceanic Administration said it detected an oil slick in the area that appeared to contain heavy bunker oil from the Sanchi's fuel tanks that could pose a serious threat to the marine environment.

Zhi said attempts to rescue crew members were hampered by a multitude of factors, beginning with the remote location of the collision.

That necessitated a 20-hour round-trip to refuel and refill the firefighting boat's tanks with fire retardant foam, Zhi said. The massive fire aboard the Sanchi required constant dousing with foam that far exceeded the capacity of the ship's storage tanks, he said.

The fire and toxic fumes released also forced rescue vessels to keep their distance and it was only after several days when the fire was beginning to die down that rescuers were able to board the ship using a crane and remove two bodies. Even then, the heat of the fire prevented them from entering the crew quarters.

High winds and waves up to 4 meters (13 feet) high further increased the difficulty, Zhi said.

"In the process of the rescue, our ships and sailors were constantly in danger," he said.

The transport ministry earlier announced plans to send a robot submarine, possibly followed by divers, to explore and plug holes in the ship. No timeline was given for the mission.

Depending on conditions, divers might also be able to pump oil from the 85,000-ton vessel's fuel tanks before they leak further and contaminate the seabed.

Authorities say the Sanchi is lying under 115 meters (377 feet) of water in the East China Sea, about 530 kilometers (330 miles) southeast of Shanghai.

While constituting a threat, the Sanchi disaster probably won't create oiled beaches such as those caused by the uncontrolled blowout on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, according to David Pettit, a senior attorney for the Washington, D.C.-based Natural Resources Defense Council.

"We can expect damage to marine life in the East China Sea from the condensate that remained in the sinking ship, but we don't know at this point how much," Pettit said in an email.

"Shipping hydrocarbons is inherently dangerous and this accident reinforces how important it is for shipping companies and coastal nations to have up-to-date oil spill recovery plans," he wrote.

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