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 same time, the owners of the Igloo Moon decided rather than just adding extra inhibitor into the cargo, Titan should test whether the original still maintained its strength. Although it would safeguard against explosions, if Titan overdosed the butadiene, it might spoil the cargo's value. They sent a sample of the liquid to a laboratory in Pensacola for a 24-hour test. In a remarkable stroke of luck, the lab reported the expiration date could be extended to December 1.

Finally, once the Titan crew had removed enough cargo to float the Igloo Moon, they needed to pull it out to sea without damaging even more of the coral reefs surrounding the ship. It would be tricky. They needed to find deep water and quick.

At the insistence of the National Park Service, Titan contracted a firm to do a detailed hydrographic survey. In a small boat, Search, Survey and Recovery crisscrossed the area using sonar to map the ocean floor and its depths. Once such a map existed, they could mark a coral-free exit channel with buoys. The only problem was that to complete the hydrographic survey, calm seas were required, and on the horizon ominous storm clouds gathered.

It fell to Guy Wood to try to stop the ship from breaking apart
photo courtesy Titan Maritime Industries, Inc
It fell to Guy Wood to try to stop the ship from breaking apart
Extra gas sensors were placed aboard the Igloo Moon as Titan offloaded the butadiene
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Extra gas sensors were placed aboard the Igloo Moon as Titan offloaded the butadiene

Out to the south and the north, two distinct weather systems began to make their way toward the Igloo Moon. Most agree this particular confluence of storms is rare for November. “I've only seen it a couple of times in 25-odd years here,” remarks Fairbanks.

In the Caribbean, around Cuba, a low-pressure tropical storm had started to blow hard. Over New York a huge area of high pressure circulated. Within a few days the two systems would be interacting with each other above the stranded ship. As they rubbed together, gale winds and monster waves would buffet the Igloo Moon. Those in the Unified Command Center prayed the mounting danger would not result in a rupture that would spew the Igloo Moon's deadly cargo into the sea and air.

By Monday, the day the lightering vessel the Selma Kosan was due to arrive, seas had risen to ten feet. Titan ferried material to the Igloo Moon in a 25-foot rigid-bottom inflatable boat, and the crew held tight as they went over the top of the large swells. Owing to the bad weather, the command center called off the hydrographic survey that had mapped about 75 percent of the area.

The Selma Kosan arrived on time, six days after the Igloo Moon went aground. But she had to anchor off the coast, because the Port of Miami wouldn't let it enter until a marine chemist certified the ship's cargo holds were gas free and a person could walk into one of the tanks and breathe.

Regardless of the Igloo Moon's dire situation, the Port of Miami wouldn't take a chance. Exploding chemical tankers could frighten -- indeed kill -- tourists on nearby cruise ships. The Coast Guard's Miller, in his capacity as captain of the port, didn't feel the need to fight the rule and force the Selma Kosan into its berth. They couldn't transfer the butadiene in the tumultuous seas anyway.

The next morning the swells averaged ten to twelve feet. A Coast Guard ship on the scene reported the boom had tangled underneath the Igloo Moon. When ordered to recover the boom, the cutter radioed back a negative: The seas were too rough to make the attempt.

Onboard the Igloo Moon, Guy Wood had another problem: how to prevent the ship from moving around in the storm. It helped that the Igloo Moon was hard aground: Except for 100 feet of the bow and 15 feet of the stern, the ship was firmly planted on the ocean floor. Still, a real possibility existed for the stress of the elements to tear it apart. “My worst-case scenario, and I really didn't know what to do about it, was if the ship started to break up, these spherical tanks are very, very well constructed; they are very heavy and meet a lot of criteria because of the cargo they are carrying,” says Captain Miller. “If the ship broke up in half, a tank or two tanks could have left the vessel basically, possibly intact.”

In such an eventuality, if the tanks didn't explode immediately, they might have to call in the navy to blow them up at sea. More frightening still, since shore wasn't that far away and the wind blew heavy to the northeast, it might just be the army detonating them on the beach. Then the media would certainly pay attention.

So Wood ballasted the Igloo Moonwith water to keep it from bouncing around and doing more damage to herself. He also chained the vessel with three anchors. “When the storm came, I filled everything I could, which again causes problems in and of itself,” explains Wood. “Everyone says, “Well, the bottom is not supposed to take that sort of stress.' Well, it's not supposed to take the stress of hitting the [ocean floor] either.”

The next day, Tuesday, November 12, the Titan ferried a marine chemist out to the Selma Kosan's anchorage. It was midafternoon and the sea heaved as the chemist struggled to board the vessel. It wasn't easy. Captain Miller describes what it's like: “You get out in heavy seas. You are going up twenty feet and then dropping twenty feet, and all you've got is this little rope ladder that you are supposed to grab onto.”

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