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Strong waves disrupt extraction

Jaime Laude - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - Strong waves had pushed the trapped USS Guardian further into the coral reefs in Tubbataha in the Sulu Sea, complicating operations to have the 68-meter warship removed from the marine protected area, sources said yesterday based on accounts from eyewitnesses.

The development came just as some officials had thought hours earlier that the US Navy minesweeper had stabilized and was no longer in danger of sinking or causing environmental disaster.

“The situation is worse,” a highly placed source said. The source said that based on accounts, strong waves had dislodged the ship from its original position. The source said the ship, as of yesterday, sat parallel to the edge of the coral reef. Earlier, the ship’s bow rested on the reef in shallow waters and its bow floating precariously in deep waters. He said there were no traces of oil slick in the area. He declined to say if the ship could still be extricated without causing serious damage to its hull.

Just hours earlier, officials who declined to be named had talked about getting assurances from US authorities that the ship had stabilized and was no longer in danger of sinking.

“We were informed by our US counterparts that the situation is now under control. Had the tilting continued the warship will definitely sink,” one of the officials said. “But the movement has stopped. The ship has stopped taking in water. So I will clarify now that the ill-fated US warship at this time has stabilized,” the source said.

The 68-meter Guardian was on its way to Puerto Princesa City after refueling at the former US naval base in Subic when it ran aground at the Tubbataha Reef’s south atoll at dawn Thursday. The Avenger-class minesweeper is based in Sasebo, Japan.

The ship’s crew reportedly refused offers of assistance from Filipino sailors and turned away several environmentalists who tried to board the vessel to do some inspection.

Two salvage tugboats – believed to be commissioned by the US government – were spotted in the area while a third was reportedly on its way to help.

“Joint assessment is being done for a planned salvage operation,” another source said. Aerial photographs provided by the Philippine military showed the ship’s bow sitting atop corals in shallow waters, with the stern floating in deep waters.

Three vessels from the Naval Forces West (Navforwest) and the Philippine Coast Guard are now in the area for perimeter security. The vessels are the Navy patrol ship BRP Rizal, naval auxiliary ship BRP Mangyan, and coast guard search and rescue vessel BRP Lomibao.

“Immediately after we were notified about the incident, we created a joint Task Group to assist them,” Navforwest commander Commodore Rustom Pena said.

For his part, PCG commandant Rear Admiral Rodolfo Isorena has ordered the deployment of anti-pollution marine vessel, BRP Corregidor to help control possible oil spill.

The Corregidor is carrying 15,000 liters of anti pollutant chemical and oil spill booms and other anti-pollution equipment, PCG spokesman Commander Armand Balilo said.

But Navy and Coast guard vessels were not allowed to get close to the ship, reports of the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board said.

US Navy team arriving

A US Navy assessment team is set to arrivein Palawan to develop a plan and work on the extraction of the minesweeper. .

Lt. Frederick Martin, US Navy 7th Fleet spokesman, said the MSV C-Champion

and USNS Bowditch are already on station, while the USS Mustin M/V Trabajador and USNS Salvor are en route to Palawan.

The US Navy is also receiving security assistance from the Philippine Coast Guard.

“A US Navy assessment team will soon arrive at Puerto Princesa where their focus will be to get onboard the Guardian, develop a plan, and work to extract the Guardian from the reef with as little impact as possible to the environment or to the ship,” Martin said in an email to The STAR.

Martin said the cause of this incident will be thoroughly investigated and that a claim for damages will be reviewed if filed. – With Pia Lee-Brago

 

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