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.

Meanwhile Guy Wood and a team of Coast Guard officers and Titan crew climbed onboard and began preparations to remove the oil and fuel in a process called lightering. Coastal Tug and Barge was hired to bring a barge alongside the ship, that would be pumped full of the Igloo Moon's oil and gas.

By the next morning, they were all at work. Despite five tanks breached, miraculously no oil had spilled. From the unscathed tanks the team simply pumped the oil out into the barge. The barge was fitted with fenders so when it bumped up against the Igloo Moon, it wouldn't further damage the ship.

The breached tanks had flooded. After ascertaining the water depth, the salvors stuck tubes down vents, which run up the side of the ship and allow air to escape the oil tanks. The hoses sucked up the oil floating on top of the water. Transferring the oil proved slow going. The Unified Command Center awaited anxiously for Wood to finish and eliminate the threat of an oil spill. Wood used heating coils to loosen the viscous oil -- until the devices malfunctioned. While lightering the oil, they pondered how to remove the butadiene quickly and safely. Without offloading some of her explosive cargo, the Igloo Moon wouldn't budge.

Richard Fairbanks thrives in the chaos of the Unified Command Center
Steve Satterwhite
Richard Fairbanks thrives in the chaos of the Unified Command Center
Coast Guard Capt. David Miller got high marks from fellow rescuers for his leadership
Steve Satterwhite
Coast Guard Capt. David Miller got high marks from fellow rescuers for his leadership

By Friday, November 8, Titan had completed removing 68,085 gallons of fuels and oils. Now they could focus on what really scared them: the butadiene. The inhibitor was set to expire the next day, so they sent to Houston for more to buy time.

During the discussions science coordinator Benggio eyed the weather forecasts with growing concern. Seas were around three feet, which is about the maximum for most lightering operations. But meteorologists predicted that by Sunday there would be swells up to nine feet.

The risk calculations performed for butadiene in the Unified Command Center focused on two possibilities. (Later in the week, when 30-foot waves lashed the Igloo Moon, horrors they'd never imagined suddenly became possible.) The butadiene could explode from a tank rupture or a breakdown in the refrigeration system. In that case everyone onboard, and most vessels in the vicinity, would be destroyed. Along the shoreline windows would shatter from the blast. And a huge chunk of Biscayne National Park's coral reefs would be ruined.

The gas could also escape into the air. Brad Benggio led a team that estimated hazard zones for a butadiene release by plugging into a computer variables of wind speed and rupture size. Key Biscayne lay little more than three miles from the ship. They computed a danger zone that stretched six miles from the point of release. It covered an area that would potentially expose thousands of people to the gas should it leak.

Models also told them how much butadiene needed to be removed before the vessel could float off the ocean floor by itself. Modelers arrived at a figure of 1000 tons. Through endless meetings over a period of 48 hours, they debated and eliminated options for lightering the cargo.

Someone suggested flaring it as a gas, burning it on the spot, but most agreed that seemed foolish. They couldn't release it into the atmosphere slowly to dissipate either; Captain Miller remembers that to do so safely would have taken about 90 days. The threat of explosion would be too great, and almost certainly those onshore would smell the gas and become frightened, or even sick. Finally, if they transferred it intact, a multimillion-dollar cargo could still be sold.

The problem with butadiene is that it can't be hauled just any old way. The men in the command center toyed with the idea of putting tanker trucks on a barge, but ruled it out as an invitation to trouble. The chemical is transported on the Mississippi River by special barges, but the vessels are not designed for the sea and would take too long to arrive, if they even agreed to risk it. To find a nearby ocean-going vessel equipped to handle butadiene seemed a long shot. To add to the difficulty, the vessel also had to be smaller than the Igloo Moon, with a shallow draft to clear the reefs carrying a full cargo.

Titan founder David Parrot and partner Richard Fairbanks identified several potential tankers. Miraculously one ideally suited had just finished unloading butane in San Juan, Puerto Rico, that Friday. Coast Guard Capt. David Miller and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration coordinator Brad Benggio are amazed to this day that Titan came up with a ship so quickly, and were able to convince its master and owner to take on the job.

One can imagine the hard sell, jokes Benggio. You have to bring your ship into this shallow coral reef area where another ship already has run aground. That other ship is sitting there with this highly explosive chemical that we want you to put on your vessel. Benggio breaks into laughter. “Oh, okay, yeah I'll be right there,” he mimics.

But Titan got the ship under contract and on its way. The 363-foot Selma Kosan set a course for Miami with a scheduled arrival of Monday afternoon, November 11.

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