Elite Hong Kong divers abseil down tanker’s cargo hold in search for two missing Vietnamese sailors after fatal blasts and fire
- Investigators looking into cause of blaze, as authorities and stakeholders consider salvage plan
- Complete retrieval and search of broken vessel could take months, factoring paperwork and logistics
Elite rescue divers on Wednesday abseiled down a cargo hold of a listing tanker to search for two missing Vietnamese sailors, one day after explosions and a fire killed a crew member and injured seven.
The operation at 6.30pm followed an earlier boarding of the Aulac Fortune – a Vietnamese-registered tanker – by firefighters, after initial investigations determined it was not yet sinking.
The high-angle rescue team from the Fire Services Department comprised divers because the holds beneath the main deck were flooded with water, a source said.
He added that detectors for flammable gas were lowered into the enclosed space to check for any danger of further explosions, before the men were deployed.
“In addition to the search, the divers also studied damages beneath the main deck and assessed the risk,” he said.
According to the source, the two missing crew members were last seen working on the main deck before sailors had started connecting hosepipes to a berthed oil barge for a refuel. It was during the procedure at 11.30am on Tuesday that the blasts occurred.
Investigators believed the explosions were triggered from within a cargo hold of the tanker, after an accumulation of flammable gas. There was no oil cargo on the ship at the time.
“Initial investigation showed the force of the explosions fanned out from the cargo holds, severely damaging other compartments and ripping open part of the main deck,” a government source told the Post.
He said it was possible that the blast was triggered by a spark in the hold which ignited flammable gas.
“But crew members said they did not see anyone smoking on the main deck at the time of the incident,” the source added.
He said investigators were looking into all possible sources of ignition such as an electrical fault, and would seek advice from experts from the Electrical and Mechanical Services Department if necessary.
The blasts on Tuesday happened as some of the 25 crewmen were preparing for refuelling operations.
The vessel was anchored one nautical mile south of Lamma Island.
The source added that it was unlikely the procedure of connecting hosepipes would cause a spark.
The 144-metre vessel was on its way to Thailand after unloading oil cargo in Dongguan, Guangdong province, but stopped near the island to refuel.
An oil barge carrying fuel was berthed next to the tanker at the time, with four crew on board.
According to the Fire Services Department, the refuel had not started when the crew heard three explosions. After the blasts, the tanker caught fire. Firefighters took about five hours to douse the flames.
The crew of the oil tanker jumped into the sea to escape or were hurled into waters by the force of the explosions. A 32-year-old crew member died and three others were injured while two more, aged 34 and 57, were missing. The four crewmen from the oil barge were slightly injured.
On Wednesday, the Marine Department, Fire Services Department and Marine Police convened a meeting with relevant parties such as the shipowner and shipping agent to assess the risk and prepare a salvage plan.
“At present, the oil tanker is in a stable condition and there is no sign of sinking,” a spokeswoman for the Marine Department said, adding it would continue to coordinate the search and rescue operation.
She also said pollution control vessels were at the scene and no oil pollution was found in the area.
The search operation ended at 9pm on Wednesday and will resume on Thursday.
The Post was earlier told local authorities were studying an option to tow the oil tanker into shallow waters to stabilise it before firefighters entered the cargo hold for a wider search.
Marine police detectives will compile a death report and study whether the event was an accident or if criminal intent is involved.
Willy Lin Sun-mo, chairman of the Hong Kong Shippers’ Council, said a lot of groundwork was needed before the salvage operation could take place.
Sorting out ownership, insurance and indemnity costs – including payouts for deaths, injuries or environmental damage – legal issues, responsibility and whether there was negligence involved could be a prolonged process, he stressed.
In the worst case scenario, if no one stepped up to take responsibility, the government would have to bear the cost of the salvage operation, he said.
“They would first have to make sure it is safe and that all fuel and dangerous goods have been removed. If the ship is sinking, they would have to refloat it before it can be towed away. In some cases they may deem it better to just let it sink,” he said. “All of this would easily take months.”
Additional reporting by Ernest Kao