In Too Deep

Four years ago a dangerous chemical tanker ran aground in Biscayne National Park. The salvage operation that followed would go down in history.

The German chemical tanker Igloo Moon cut through the predawn stillness in the waters off the coast of South Florida. It was 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday, November 6, 1996, when Chief Mate Peter Stubler sent one of his crewmen on a routine inspection of the ship. Stubler liked to call it “a fire round” in recognition of the volatile and explosive nature of the Igloo Moon's cargo. The chief mate and a merchant seaman, Esene Mafalu, had spent the night on watch together.

While Stubler stood lookout on deck, Mafalu, a native of Fiji, climbed down a 35-foot ladder into the hold of the ship. He walked beneath the six stainless-steel cylinders used to transport the vessel's multimillion-dollar cargo. Together the tanks held roughly 6600 metric tons of butadiene, one of the most dangerous industrial chemicals in use today.

For starters it's toxic. The Environmental Protection Agency has determined prolonged exposure to butadiene is cancerous to humans. At high concentrations it affects the central nervous system and causes nausea, headaches, and dizziness. As a gas it's heavier than air. Loose in a ship it can settle into dangerous pockets.

The captain of the Igloo Moon was shaken awake when his ship hit bottom
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
The captain of the Igloo Moon was shaken awake when his ship hit bottom
The captain of the Igloo Moon was shaken awake when his ship hit bottom
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
The captain of the Igloo Moon was shaken awake when his ship hit bottom

Yet it wasn't cancer or hazardous clouds that concerned Mafalu.

The crewman verified that the refrigeration system that kept the butadiene liquid still worked. If it failed and the cylinders warmed to room temperature, the liquid would become a gas. In an enclosed place, butadiene gas is unstable and apt to react with itself, leading to an explosion strong enough to blow the 464-foot-long vessel into thousands of pieces. So serious is this threat that as an added precaution, the cylinders aboard the Igloo Moon also contained an inhibiting chemical to prevent such a reaction.

In just three days, the expiration date of the inhibitor would pass. But as Mafalu smoked a cigarette in the crew lounge after the round, he didn't worry. By the time the inhibitor lost its power, the butadiene aboard the Igloo Moon would be offloaded and helping to manufacture tires at a petrochemical facility on the Houston Ship Channel in Texas.

He finished his smoke and headed for the deck. It was now shortly before 5:00 a.m. The tanker skimmed through waves between two and four feet. The wind blew from ten to fifteen knots from the west, northwest. It had been smooth sailing since their departure from Saudi Arabia. After four weeks at sea, they were in the final stretch. The Igloo Moon had crossed the Bahama Banks. All that remained would be to navigate the Florida Straits into the Gulf of Mexico and on to Houston. The ship's German captain, Werner Mittelstadt, plotted a course that would hug the calmer waters of the Miami coastline, to lessen the impact of the headlong northerly flow of the Gulf Stream. It's a common route ships use to save time, although the current can be tricky, fast in one place, slow in another.

There were other reasons they would have to be careful. Sailing so close to shore left the Igloo Moon vulnerable to any number of hazards. There might be smaller craft in the area with which they could collide. The change in water depth is erratic. Nearby are coral reefs, the protection of which the State of Florida and the federal government take very seriously. The reefs are some of the most expensive real estate in the world when it comes time to repair damage to them.

On deck Stubler had his back to Mafalu, looking out to sea. As the chief mate stood silent before him, Mafalu thought he must be listening to music on his Walkman.

In fact the watchman was sound asleep, oblivious to the looming danger.

Suddenly the ship began to shake. Captain Mittelstadt jolted awake in his stateroom and rushed to the bridge. The Igloo Moon was much too close to shore. He tried to turn the vessel hard to port. The ship shuddered violently. Too late, Mittelstadt realized they weren't going anywhere on their own steam.

The Igloo Moon had run aground a little more than three miles from Key Biscayne inside Biscayne National Park. From Stiltsville she would have appeared peacefully at anchor. Yet on the way to her resting spot, the Igloo Moon had powered through enough coral reef to rupture four of its oil and diesel-fuel tanks. The ship carried about 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel and lube oil, much of it housed in tanks in a double-bottom hull. The release of the oil could kill untold numbers of birds and fish and damage productive mangroves for years to come.

Mittelstadt radioed the Coast Guard and the owners of the Igloo Moon in Germany. Coast Guard Miami Port Capt. David Miller learned of the grounding and the ship's perilous cargo around 6:00 a.m. As he hurriedly began to mobilize his forces to prevent an oil spill into the waters of Biscayne Bay, he wondered, How the hell could they safely remove the ship?

What Miller also didn't know was that a rare confluence of November storms from both the north and south was headed his way, bringing with it towering waves and gale-force winds. For the next two weeks, a salvage team would desperately try to prevent the ship from breaking apart and exploding. Today, within the world of disaster planning and ship salvage, the Igloo Moon operation is taught to emergency teams. “In maritime circles the Igloo Moon is a major event,” says Miller.

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