Marianas Variety

Last updateSat, 16 Dec 2017 12am

     

     

     

     

     

    Saturday, December 16, 2017-7:51:56A.M.

     

     

     

     

     

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Container vessel removed from reef

THE port of Saipan is back in business as the container vessel that choked the island’s supply route was safely removed from the reef and brought to the port last night.

U.S. Coast Guard Sector Guam Commander Capt. James Pruett told Variety last night that the cooperative efforts of the ship’s owner, the CNMI government, and the U.S. Coast Guard have led to a successful operation.

Around 10 p.m. last night, MV Paul Russ was safely brought to the Port of Saipan by three tugboats.

A key factor in the removal of the ship from the reef was the weather.

Captain Pruett said, “The weather helped us a lot with the wind driving in one direction, the tide in another. With heavy weather and larger waves moving in, we were able to pull the vessel off the reef.”

For a while, the island appeared to be on the verge of a supply crisis when the MV Paul Russ ran aground on the reef, blocking the channel and preventing other vessels from docking.

From Tuesday until last night, the channel was closed to navigation by all vessels.

Variety was told by shipping officials that their vessels could not leave Guam when the Saipan Harbor became a no-entry zone.

If the grounded vessel had remained stuck at the reef, Saipan would not have been able to receive critical supplies.

At the port of Saipan around 11 p.m., Captain Pruett announced that the port had reopened

“The safety zone has been reduced to 250 yards. All vessels can now come in and out but at slow speed, no waves.”

He said they will reassess the situation today to determine what restrictions will be reduced and what restrictions will need to stay in place.

He acknowledged the “great job” and the cooperation they got from the CNMI government and the ship owner.

Pruett added that the vessel will undergo further inspections by the Coast Guard.

Alex Sablan, who serves as protective agent for the vessel, said the incident command system worked very well.”

Sablan commended Pruett for his leadership during the operations.

He also said, “Captains of the Port for CNMI and Guam did an excellent job in coordinating with the rest of the command group.”

He also acknowledged the efforts of Special Assistant for Homeland Security Marvin Seman and the vessel owners, among others.

“Our priority was the safety of the crew and the general public with the unexploded ordnance found,” he said.

He added that every precaution was taken.

“Once it was deemed safe by the Navy EOD, the Captain of the Port asked that the incident command group put together a salvage plan which it quickly did. Kudos to the team. Obviously we have a safe arrival of the vessel,” he told Variety.

As of 6:55 p.m. last night, Special Assistant for Homeland Security and Emergency Management Marvin K. Seman confirmed that they were pulling out all the stops to remove the stranded container vessel from the harbor that same night.

He said they had a window of opportunity to do so from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.  

Information that bad weather was threatening prompted the unified response team to expedite the salvage operations.

The unified federal and local response team decided that the Antigua and Barbuda flagged vessel should be removed.

Seman said, “We are going to go ahead and have it towed out tonight.”

He said they made an effort to remove it last night and they expected the high tide would make it easier..

“Right now we are looking at six-foot sea swells outside. That is going to be a factor,” he said.

Based on the plan, three tugboats from Seabridge Inc. were to be used to pull the grounded vessel off the reef.

Seman said they would exercise caution in doing so as they needed to maintain the vessel’s integrity and prevent it from being damaged.

The decision to proceed with removal operations last night was prompted by the go-signal from the U.S. Navy EOD Division based on an approved plan.

Murphy’s law was at work on Saipan since Tuesday when the ship first ran aground, then divers discovered “what appeared to be WWII ordnance” at the site, and the bad weather conditions were making the situation worse.

Seman confirmed last night that that lodged near the site of the grounded container vessel are highly corroded WWII ordnance including a torpedo that delayed recovery efforts.

This, coupled with the bad weather, complicated the removal of the MV Paul Russ which was pulling into Saipan Harbor early Tuesday morning to deliver supplies.

Port workers are seen near the secured vessel following the successful removal operation, Thursday evening.  Photo by Alexie Villegas Zotomayor

As of press time, the WWII ordnance found near MV Paul Russ remained at the site.

“The ordnance found is degraded,” said Seman.

He said “There is a plan to remove it, and a contingency plan if that doesn’t fall into place.”

The combined federal and local authorities have been working around the clock to avert a major disaster and prevent a supply crisis .

“We are hoping for the best,” said Seman.

They knew the odds they were up against.

“If we were to leave it out there overnight during this heavy weather, with the big swells, we might end up with a far worse situation,” he said.

U.S. Coast Guard lifts restrictions

Before 6 p.m., the U.S. Coast Guard lifted its no-entry order.

“It is going to be posted again as soon as we get moving at 8 pm.,” said Seman referring to their removal operations.

He said the reinstatement of the no-entry policy would last only for the duration of the removal operation which Seman said would take until 11 p.m. last night.

Removal of the ordnance

The discovery of possible WWII ordnance at the site had put the unified response team in a bind.

Yesterday, representatives from the U.S. Navy arrived at the port.

“We were waiting for EOD Guam and for the salvage party to give us a plan. The plan was reviewed and approved by all commanders, CNMI Homeland Security, the U.S. Coast Guard and the owners,” said Seman.

As to the removal of the ordnance, Seman said they were not taking any chances despite knowing that the ordnance was degraded.

“We are always exercising caution,” he said.

Seman said they made the decision to proceed with removal following the U.S. Navy’s recommendation for them to so.

“Based on their recommendation, we will pull it off a certain way. We are just going to be very careful,” he said.

“We are hoping that this works out tonight—that nothing goes wrong. Tomorrow is the recovery phase,” he said.

Seman said they would make every effort to complete the salvage operations last night.

“If everything works out, the port will reopen, everything will go back to normal,” he said.

He said they were not expecting the delivery of supplies until this weekend.

“There was nothing on the schedule. We did not have any commercial vessels [coming in],” he said.

But the push to remove the vessel was needed to prevent any other problems.

“If we leave it tonight, and something goes wrong, it is going to drag on,” he said.

It was a high-risk situation as the responding federal and local agencies had to deal with a pitch-black environment at the site.

Seman said the vessel would be towed to the port, where they will determine if it is stable and address any problems.

He said towing it back into the open ocean would be risky.

“We may have a sinking vessel,” he said.

He added that lives could be at risk.

The harbor was closed from Wednesday through yesterday afternoon.

The no-entry policy was lifted until removal operations began.

Seman said they wanted to make sure that supplies can come in.

Although the supplies could be brought via air, Seman said bringing supplies to the seaport is the most economical way.

“Every effort is to ensure that it is protected and to ensure its safety,” said Seman referring to the port.

Yesterday, representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard, local authorities, and other federal agencies met at the Seabridge Inc. office at the Port of Saipan to plan their course of action.

Before 6 p.m., the responding team members began leaving for the site of the grounded vessel.

The unified response team would remove the ship in the course of two hours.