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.

Guy Wood remembers sitting onboard the Igloo Moon, listening on the radio as the Westerdam bore down upon their hapless lightering vessel. “I thought, Oh my God, now we are back to square one,” he recalls, “and we don't have a ship.”

Just before the Westerdam could crush the Selma Kosan, it regained power. In Coast Guard reports the event is described as “the paint-scraping incident.”

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

Monday, November 18, arrived with eight-foot seas and the promise of more moderate swells moving down from the North. By Tuesday the sea might hit the magic wave size of three feet or less, without which the transfer could not take place. No one wanted stressed hoses full of butadiene splitting open. And it's tricky to park a ship next to a grounded vessel. “You have to wait for the weather to be good, otherwise you just roll into each other,” says Wood.

With the lightering near and the storm subsiding, Biscayne National Park sprang into action. The Department of Interior, as the landholder where the grounding occurred, demanded that the ballast water be treated before Wood dumped it into the ocean. Park service staff feared that since the Igloo Moon had traveled from foreign oceans with similar climates, the water in her belly might contain invasive species. The real-life horror story that motivated them came from the zebra mussel, which likely arrived on these shores in ballast water around 1988. It went on to colonize the Great Lakes. The economic and environmental disaster continues to mount twelve years later.

“The National Park Service takes their responsibility to protect that resource very seriously, and they didn't want to take a chance that was unnecessary,” says Capt. David Miller.

The hard-bitten Titan crew thought it a little ridiculous. “We could just about see the Port of Miami, and there were ships coming in and out, pumping out ballast water,” notes naval architect Phil Reed.

Still, it wouldn't cause much delay; no special laboratory was needed. All they had to do was run to Home Depot for a couple of gallons of bleach. The tanks would be treated with chlorine, left for at least six hours, and then the water released.

Before they proceeded marine engineer Richard Fairbanks demanded an agreement in case the chlorine killed nearby marine life. “I needed a harmless agreement from them saying, “Look, I'll put this in but if we kill all the lobsters in the area with the swimming-pool water it's not my fault,'” he says. The park service finally decided the risk was minimal to surrounding life. The Igloo Moon's crash through the coral likely had eliminated all sea creatures in the ship's wake.

When the weather had cleared even more, Search, Survey and Recovery had completed the hydrographic survey of the ocean bottom. Now that they knew the way out, Wood and the other Titan crew wanted to lighter the vessel as quickly as possible. Fortunately Tuesday promised ideal conditions. Indeed November 19 arrived sunny, but with waves still over three feet. Concerned that their window of good weather might close, the Unified Command Center decided to push ahead anyway.

The Coast Guard set about marking the channel with buoys so the Selma Kosan and the three tugboats Fairbanks had enlisted knew where to go. The buoys had radar reflectors and chemical marker lights. Titan ferried additional diesel fuel to the Igloo Moon to keep the refrigeration system humming. Now Fairbanks had to find new ships to help with the lightering operation. Coastal, the tugboat company that had worked to remove the oil, declined to participate in removing the butadiene on the advice of their insurance company. It was just too dangerous.

After several delays involving the late arrival of fenders and the removal of the Igloo Moon's stern anchor, the time to lighter finally came. It was now late afternoon. The Coast Guard gave strict orders that cell phones and beepers could not be carried on deck, as they could set off an explosion. They demanded all ships be equipped with fire suits, breathing apparatuses, and protective clothing. Extra sensors were deployed around the vessel to monitor the air.

Then at the last minute, the captain of the lightering vessel decided he couldn't go forward. Captain Miller went aboard the Selma Kosan to try to convince its master to proceed. “He wanted another night to sleep on it,” recalls Miller. “He felt like there was too much pressure.” Despite the Coast Guard captain's entreaties, the master of the Selma Kosan wouldn't budge. So Miller called off the operation until the following day.

At 9:35 the next morning, Wednesday, November 20, the Selma Kosan arrived alongside the Igloo Moon. By 10:25 a hose connection had been made between the two vessels. Fairbanks had purchased from Houston the specially designed hose, made with braided stainless steel to prevent breakage. Once the hoses were attached, the team pumped nitrogen through to flush the air out and test it. To their horror they discovered the hose had a hole. Fortunately Fairbanks had ordered several. An hour passed as they repeated the hookup.

At 12:40 p.m. the Selma Kosan started to receive butadiene from the Igloo Moon. By 4:37 p.m. the stranded vessel had filled the Selma Kosan, though the Igloo Moon still carried enough butadiene to blow herself into smithereens. Less than an hour later, the Selma Kosan left the exit channel. The tugs guided the vessel between two reefs for almost two miles before moving out to sea at a spot that was deep enough. Now, the Igloo Moon had an estimated draft of 17 feet. They would need a draft of 22 feet to escape.

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