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.

The German chemical tanker Igloo Moon cut through the predawn stillness in the waters off the coast of South Florida. It was 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday, November 6, 1996, when Chief Mate Peter Stubler sent one of his crewmen on a routine inspection of the ship. Stubler liked to call it “a fire round” in recognition of the volatile and explosive nature of the Igloo Moon's cargo. The chief mate and a merchant seaman, Esene Mafalu, had spent the night on watch together.

While Stubler stood lookout on deck, Mafalu, a native of Fiji, climbed down a 35-foot ladder into the hold of the ship. He walked beneath the six stainless-steel cylinders used to transport the vessel's multimillion-dollar cargo. Together the tanks held roughly 6600 metric tons of butadiene, one of the most dangerous industrial chemicals in use today.

For starters it's toxic. The Environmental Protection Agency has determined prolonged exposure to butadiene is cancerous to humans. At high concentrations it affects the central nervous system and causes nausea, headaches, and dizziness. As a gas it's heavier than air. Loose in a ship it can settle into dangerous pockets.

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
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
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
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

Yet it wasn't cancer or hazardous clouds that concerned Mafalu.

The crewman verified that the refrigeration system that kept the butadiene liquid still worked. If it failed and the cylinders warmed to room temperature, the liquid would become a gas. In an enclosed place, butadiene gas is unstable and apt to react with itself, leading to an explosion strong enough to blow the 464-foot-long vessel into thousands of pieces. So serious is this threat that as an added precaution, the cylinders aboard the Igloo Moon also contained an inhibiting chemical to prevent such a reaction.

In just three days, the expiration date of the inhibitor would pass. But as Mafalu smoked a cigarette in the crew lounge after the round, he didn't worry. By the time the inhibitor lost its power, the butadiene aboard the Igloo Moon would be offloaded and helping to manufacture tires at a petrochemical facility on the Houston Ship Channel in Texas.

He finished his smoke and headed for the deck. It was now shortly before 5:00 a.m. The tanker skimmed through waves between two and four feet. The wind blew from ten to fifteen knots from the west, northwest. It had been smooth sailing since their departure from Saudi Arabia. After four weeks at sea, they were in the final stretch. The Igloo Moon had crossed the Bahama Banks. All that remained would be to navigate the Florida Straits into the Gulf of Mexico and on to Houston. The ship's German captain, Werner Mittelstadt, plotted a course that would hug the calmer waters of the Miami coastline, to lessen the impact of the headlong northerly flow of the Gulf Stream. It's a common route ships use to save time, although the current can be tricky, fast in one place, slow in another.

There were other reasons they would have to be careful. Sailing so close to shore left the Igloo Moon vulnerable to any number of hazards. There might be smaller craft in the area with which they could collide. The change in water depth is erratic. Nearby are coral reefs, the protection of which the State of Florida and the federal government take very seriously. The reefs are some of the most expensive real estate in the world when it comes time to repair damage to them.

On deck Stubler had his back to Mafalu, looking out to sea. As the chief mate stood silent before him, Mafalu thought he must be listening to music on his Walkman.

In fact the watchman was sound asleep, oblivious to the looming danger.

Suddenly the ship began to shake. Captain Mittelstadt jolted awake in his stateroom and rushed to the bridge. The Igloo Moon was much too close to shore. He tried to turn the vessel hard to port. The ship shuddered violently. Too late, Mittelstadt realized they weren't going anywhere on their own steam.

The Igloo Moon had run aground a little more than three miles from Key Biscayne inside Biscayne National Park. From Stiltsville she would have appeared peacefully at anchor. Yet on the way to her resting spot, the Igloo Moon had powered through enough coral reef to rupture four of its oil and diesel-fuel tanks. The ship carried about 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel and lube oil, much of it housed in tanks in a double-bottom hull. The release of the oil could kill untold numbers of birds and fish and damage productive mangroves for years to come.

Mittelstadt radioed the Coast Guard and the owners of the Igloo Moon in Germany. Coast Guard Miami Port Capt. David Miller learned of the grounding and the ship's perilous cargo around 6:00 a.m. As he hurriedly began to mobilize his forces to prevent an oil spill into the waters of Biscayne Bay, he wondered, How the hell could they safely remove the ship?

What Miller also didn't know was that a rare confluence of November storms from both the north and south was headed his way, bringing with it towering waves and gale-force winds. For the next two weeks, a salvage team would desperately try to prevent the ship from breaking apart and exploding. Today, within the world of disaster planning and ship salvage, the Igloo Moon operation is taught to emergency teams. “In maritime circles the Igloo Moon is a major event,” says Miller.

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.

“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.

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.

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.

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.


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.”

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.

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.

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.”


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.

On Thursday, November 21, they dumped the ballast water. After fifteen days, at 2:47 p.m., the Igloo Moon floated off the ocean floor and was led out to sea. Fairbanks and the Titan crew were now in the tanker business. They had to get the butadiene to Houston to sell it. It wasn't safe to take the Igloo Moon there directly and no U.S. port close by would allow the damaged vessel in. So while the Selma Kosan made fast to Houston to deliver what she held in her hold, the Igloo Moon sailed to Freeport, Bahamas. The Selma Kosan did one more trip back and forth.

With the cargo gone and salvage master Guy Wood still in the wheelhouse, they towed the Igloo Moon to a shipyard in Tampa. Phil Reed, who worked out of the shipyard, remembers watching with his three-year-old son as the big ship was brought in. Over the next four months, workers gave the Igloo Moon a new steel bottom, and then sent it back out to sea.


Fallout from the Igloo Moon continued long after the ship left dry dock in Tampa. When the crew returned to Germany, a Maritime Board of Inquiry convened in Bremen to conduct an investigation into the incident. During the inquiry the chief mate admitted he had fallen asleep, something he neglected to tell the Coast Guard during the salvage effort.

The Coast Guard conducted its own investigation. Their report concluded that “the overall management of the watches on the Igloo Moon lacked discipline and strict adherence ... to good maritime practices.” Although the investigation uncovered inadequate staffing, it did not find “a willful violation of law.” The investigator made the recommendation that the Coast Guard should develop and promote regulations that require the use of bridge monitoring systems, shallow-water alarms, continuous automatic plotters, and waypoint alarms for vessels in the Straits of Florida.

Coast Guard headquarters disagreed. Sufficient equipment existed, it just wasn't used properly, argued the Coast Guard commander. “The core of the problem appears to be fatigue and improper watchstanding,” wrote W.D. Rabe, chief of the Investigations Division of the U.S. Coast Guard's Washington, D.C., headquarters. “Sufficient manning requirements, addressing fatigue and work-hour limits, are where we should be focusing our efforts.”

At the present time the U.S. Department of Justice is trying to recover damages to Biscayne National Park from the insurance company that represents the owners of the Igloo Moon. Lawyers with the Department of Justice waited three years before filing the lawsuit, claiming the ship destroyed 492 meters of coral reef habitat. The government is asking for a total of $2,063,086.36 for reef and sea-grass repairs. The two sides currently are reviewing each other's documents. A pretrial conference is scheduled for January 2001.

Within three months of the Igloo Moon incident, the Titan crew was back at work. A tanker loaded with crude oil, the San Jorge, had hit an unchartered reef off the coast of Uruguay. The cargo tanks had ruptured, spilling oil. Titan's task: Remove the remaining oil, stabilize the vessel, and ready it for towing.

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