Crews prepare to resume shipwreck demolition delayed by fire

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Fire fighters spray water into the cut away mid-section of the cargo vessel Golden Ray, Friday, May 14, 2021, Brunswick, Ga. The Golden Ray had roughly 4,200 vehicles in its cargo decks when it capsized off St. Simons Island on Sept. 8, 2019. Crews have used a giant gantry crane to carve the ship into eight giant chunks, then carry each section away by barge. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

SAVANNAH, Ga. – Salvage crews on the Georgia coast are preparing to resume demolition of an overturned cargo ship after work halted nearly two weeks ago when a large fire engulfed the shipwreck.

The towering crane being used to saw the South Korean freighter Golden Ray into large chunks has been moved back into position straddling the wreck after the crane passed an inspection following the fire, Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Himes said Wednesday.

The salvage team is waiting for engineers assessing fire damage to the shipwreck to declare that demolition can safely continue.

“It will be a few more days for sure," said Himes, a spokesman for the multiagency command overseeing the salvage. “We don’t have a clear timeline yet.”

The Golden Ray capsized with roughly 4,200 cars within its cargo decks on Sept. 8, 2019. Crews have been working since November to remove the ship in eight giant pieces, with the crane using a long anchor chain to tear through the vessel's hull like a blunt-edged saw.

Demolition was roughly halfway done when a fire ignited aboard the shipwreck May 14 as workers used cutting torches on the hull. No one was injured, but thick smoke poured from the wreck for hours before boats pumping seawater through water cannons extinguished the flames.

Himes said engineers are still working to determine whether intense heat from the fire weakened the vessel's steel hull or the massive lifting lugs welded to its top. The lugs connect to the crane's rigging, serving as critical anchor points for picking up each section.

The salvage team still plans to remove what's left of the Golden Ray in four giant pieces, Himes said. Engineers will determine whether crews first have to make those sections lighter by removing cars and interior decks.

“We know we can cut and we know we can lift,” Himes said. “The question is how much weight can we lift.”

Meanwhile, debris recovery teams are still collecting melted plastic and charred debris from the fire. Car bumpers and other large parts have been fished from the water surrounding the shipwreck, Himes said, while thousands of smaller car pieces have been picked up along the beaches of nearby St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island.

Fletcher Sams of the Altamaha Riverkeeper conservation group said he's worried that a significant amount of debris from the fire could remain in the water long term after collecting in marsh grasses where it's hard to spot.

“All this plastic's not going to be biodegradable," Sams said. "The big question is, how are we going to clean up something that’s so hard to find?”

The Golden Ray was headed to sea when it rolled onto its side soon after leaving the Port of Brunswick, about 70 miles (112 kilometers) south of Savannah. Though four crew members had to be rescued from deep inside the ship, all 24 people on board survived.

A Coast Guard expert later concluded the Golden Ray tipped over because unstable loading had left its center of gravity too high.