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.

To get him onboard, they transferred the chemist to a larger ship that came around the other side of the Selma Kosan. Once aboard the ship, chemist Peter Rimmel dropped a hose into each tank to take an atmosphere sample. By the time he determined the ship safe and certified her gas free, darkness had fallen. As the wind and waves whipped up, an anchor winch on the Selma Kosan malfunctioned. The ship's master decided to stay at anchorage until the following day. Rimmel opted to remain as well rather than try to board another vessel to take him home in the furious sea. Wednesday morning, November 13, as the storm worsened, the Selma Kosan cut the anchor and headed for a safe berth in the Port of Miami.

Eight days after the Igloo Moon ran aground off Key Biscayne, the storm toyed mercilessly with the trapped vessel. Wood's fears were proving true. The stern and bow shifted back and forth while the rudder post jerked up and down. The vessel's loud protests could be heard in the sound of stretching steel, stressed in ways for which it was not designed. Wood wondered how much the storm was scouring the bottom underneath, moving sand, and exposing more of the ship to the mercy of the crashing waves.

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

Shortly before 1:00 p.m., Captain Miller ordered all Coast Guard personnel, both onboard the Igloo Moon and in boats around the grounded vessel, to evacuate. By Friday, November 15, the tempest grew fiercer still, with winds blowing 30 knots and seas well over twenty feet. Until this point most of the crew of the Igloo Moon was still onboard. Titan offloaded nearly everyone from the ship. As the mariners tried to depart the grounded ship in the heaving seas, they watched the waves, timing their jump onto the rescue vessel as the swells crested. The count aboard the stricken ship fell to nine crew members and two Titan salvors left to ride out the weather and risk their lives.

On the mainland the storm caused highway accidents, downed power lines, and upturned trees. In the command center, the helpless group gave Wood approval to dump the ballast water and the fuel if the ship started to break. In the meantime Wood tried to pump additional water aboard to keep the vessel as still as possible. “I would have put more in if there were more spaces to put it in,” says Wood. “All you could do was add more weight to stop it from moving around.”

A contingency plan was formed to try to spirit off the remaining crew by helicopter if necessary.

Onboard, waves smashed over the top of the deck. That night Wood walked the ship as crewman Esene Mafalu had done in much calmer circumstances. Wood had all but foregone sleep by that point. As the ship bucked, he climbed down the 35-foot ladder with a flashlight to inspect the tanks. The wind wailed and the ship grinded. The darkness accentuated every pop and creak. “The tanks were banging,” recalls Wood. “She was [sloshing] around and clanging a bit.”

Wood made a horrifying discovery: The top of the tanks had broken through the deck and were moving wildly from side to side. The stoic Wood, whose chosen profession places him in extreme danger on a regular basis, admits it wasn't much fun. “The only time I've ever heard Guy worried was one of the nights when the weather was really bad and they were out there by themselves,” observes Phil Reed, a Titan naval architect who has been on many jobs with Wood. “He was sitting on a bomb.”

The next morning, Saturday, November 16, as the sea roiled with waves as high as 30 feet, Wood reported the discovery of an 18-inch crack in the engine-room bulkhead. If the crack widened and seawater flowed into the room, they could lose the diesel generators. Without the power they provided, the refrigeration of the butadiene tanks would stop. In the rough weather, an explosion surely would follow. At the least that would mean death for everyone onboard. They hurriedly moved portable pumps to the engine room.

Standard procedure to stop a crack from expanding is to drill a hole on either end of it. The energy of the break then loses itself in the circular hole rather than continuing to cut through the metal. They drilled the holes, but the crack wouldn't stop growing. Wood decided to weld a triangular metal bracket called a gusset on either end of the crack. After much coaxing, they finally contained the fissure and welded it shut.

By this time the Selma Kosan was safely at berth in the Port of Miami. While Wood and those remaining onboard the Igloo Moon wrestled with the elements, the lightering vessel had its cargo holds filled with the inert gas nitrogen so no air would react with the butadiene to come.

That Sunday the cruise ship Westerdam tried to leave the Port of Miami. As it exited the port, the nearly 54,000-ton Westerdam lost power in the storm and began to drift directly toward the Selma Kosan.

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