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.

At the time of the grounding, and to the continued amazement of the participants in the rescue, local media never paid more than perfunctory attention. But the Igloo Moon incident might soon be in the news again. The U.S. Justice Department is preparing to go to court in an effort to collect reparations for the devastation. If the case is heard in court, jurors will learn not only about the damages wrought on the national park; they also might hear an astonishing tale of heroism in the face of disaster.

Richard Fairbanks learned of the Igloo Moon while still in bed that Wednesday morning. Fairbanks is a marine engineer by training and a former researcher with General Electric's Marine Steam Turbine Division. Today he shares the leadership of Titan Maritime Industries, Inc., a global salvage firm. Fairbanks had never seen anything like the Igloo Moon.

Titan founder David Parrot with two crewmen who worked to save the Igloo Moon
Steve Satterwhite
Titan founder David Parrot with two crewmen who worked to save the Igloo Moon
The storm proved so fierce that even the Coast Guard evacuated
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
The storm proved so fierce that even the Coast Guard evacuated

“Usually hard aground jobs are nothing too serious and they don't have a lot of risk,” says Fairbanks, who hails from the Massachusetts shore and speaks with an accent equal parts brine and Boston. Such jobs don't usually come with highly explosive chemicals onboard.

U.S. law dictates that all tanker ships trading within the nation's waters must name an oil pollution and salvage company in case of a wreck. That way the public doesn't foot the bill for a multimillion-dollar rescue and cleanup. The Igloo Moon had named a salvage outfit in New Jersey called Donjon Marine. Coast Guard Capt. David Miller and the London brokerage firm that handled insurance for the ship wanted Titan instead. For starters, they argued, the firm had the advantage of geography, as it's based in Fort Lauderdale. “[The ship] was right on our doorstep,” explains the 55-year-old Fairbanks.

When Fairbanks first came aboard in 1988 at the invitation of David Parrot, Titan's founder, the company worked like most other salvors. It had tugboats and heavy equipment to rescue ships that had grounded or partially sunk. These tools of the trade anchored them close to home. But Fairbanks helped nudge the group away from a reliance on equipment and toward an emphasis on expertise. Now Titan fields teams that travel the oceans and rivers of the world, salvaging stricken vessels. It subcontracts with other firms for the bulk of working material. At the time of the Igloo Moon incident, the company also had jobs under way in Denmark, refloating a capsized dredger, and in Indonesia, retrieving an 8471-ton partially exploded tanker.

Fortunately the third in the Titan leadership troika, senior salvage master Guy Wood, was at home in South Florida that November. The 44-year-old English-born Wood began his career as a teenage tugboat captain. When he was just eighteen years old, he towed a ship from Britain to India. By the end of the Igloo Moon ordeal, all those years of experience would be called into play.

During a salvage effort -- by definition an emergency -- Fairbanks, Parrot, and Wood each has an assigned role. Parrot mans the office, communicating with the owners, helping to hire subcontractors, and making sure the team receives everything it needs. Wood is aboard the shipwreck, commanding the most physical and dangerous part of the job. In this case Fairbanks represented the group in a committee called the Unified Command Center, where all the major decisions are made in conjunction with government officials.

The Unified Command Center system is still a work in progress for the government. The idea of bringing specialists from every affected government agency -- federal, state, and local -- together in the same room to handle an emergency began with forest fires. As wildfires sometimes raged across several states, a need grew for stronger coordination among government agencies. In the case of a shipwreck, the owners of the vessel also are included in the group.

The Coast Guard took up the unified command method in 1992, four years before the Igloo Moon disaster. At the height of Igloo Moon, hundreds of people were working in the command center, some passing days without leaving. “[Unified Command] is pretty new,” says Brad Benggio, a scientific coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “There aren't that many big responses where we get an opportunity to pull that out.”

By 2:00 p.m. on the day the Igloo Moon ran aground, Benggio, Captain Miller, and Richard Fairbanks had made it to the Coast Guard Marine Safety Operations office off the MacArthur Causeway. They were joined by dozens of others in a conference room on the second floor to analyze the potential perils.

Offshore by the Igloo Moon, several Coast Guard vessels circled while a contractor spread a plastic boom around the ship to contain any spills. Coast Guard officials onboard administered drug and alcohol tests to the captain and crew. (They tested negative.) They established a no-fly zone of 3000 feet and a no-boat zone of three miles (later dropped to 1500 feet and one mile, respectively). Divers from the national park surveyed damage to the coral. And the men in the command center strategized on how to stave off a catastrophe.

At 4:00 p.m. they held a press conference. When it ended Captain Miller breathed a sigh of relief. The Unified Command Center had answered all reporters' questions; fortunately there weren't many of them.

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