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'Nothing but Problems': Shipwreck Teardown Now in Its Fifth Month

FILE - A towering crane straddles the capsized cargo ship Golden Ray, its interior decks exposed after the ship's bow was cut off and hauled away, off the coast of St. Simons Island, Ga., Feb. 25, 2021.

When salvage crews in early November began cutting apart the capsized Golden Ray, a shipwreck the size of a 70-story office building with 4,200 cars within its cargo decks, they predicted the demolition could be wrapped up by New Year's Day.

Months later, the job remains far from finished.

Both ends of the cargo ship have been cut away and carried off by barges in a pair of giant chunks. But roughly three-fourths of the vessel remains beached on its side off St. Simons Island on the Georgia coast, where the South Korean freighter overturned soon after leaving port September 8, 2019. What caused the ship to flip is still being investigated, but an unstable load is suspected.

"It's been nothing but problems out here," said Andy Jones, a St. Simons Island resident who heads to the wreck site in his small fishing boat most days to monitor the demolition and post updates to a YouTube channel. "It's a disappointingly slow pace."

Salvage experts decided more than a year ago that the Golden Ray, measuring 656 feet (199 meters) long, was too big to remove intact. They settled on a plan to carve the ship into eight massive chunks, each weighing up to 4,100 tons (3,720 metric tons).

They straddled the wreck with a towering crane with a winch and pulley system attached to 400 feet (122 meters) of anchor chain that acts as a dull sawblade, tearing through the ship's hull with brute force.

Start to finish, each individual cut was supposed to take a single day. Taking into account time needed to load each severed ship section onto a barge and prepare for the next slice, the multiagency command overseeing the effort predicted the job would take eight weeks.

It's turned out to be a lot harder.

FILE - The bow section of the vehicle carrier Golden Ray, with some of the 4,000 cars still onboard, waits to be towed to a scrap yard, Dec. 1, 2020, in Brunswick, Ga.
FILE - The bow section of the vehicle carrier Golden Ray, with some of the 4,000 cars still onboard, waits to be towed to a scrap yard, Dec. 1, 2020, in Brunswick, Ga.

The first cut began November 6 and took three weeks. Lifting the ship's bow section revealed battered cars and SUVs in neat, layered rows on the interior decks. The second cut started a month later, on Christmas Day, and was finished in a week.

Crews spent all of February attempting a third cut through the ship's engine room, a section fortified with thicker steel. After strain on the cutting apparatus forced extensive maintenance, the salvage crew stopped with the cut only about half finished.

They spent days moving the crane to the other end of the ship, where they began cutting a new section while rethinking plans to complete the unfinished one.

The ship's steel has proved tougher than anticipated, slowing the process, and crews have taken pauses to perform extra inspections and maintenance, said Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Himes, a spokesman for the multiagency command overseeing the demolition.

"If people are wondering when it is going to be done, we're doing it as quickly and as safely as can be done," Himes said. "But quick takes a back seat to safety."

He said it's possible the last chunk of the ship could head to the scrapyard by June, the first month of the Atlantic hurricane season. Workers have taken steps to make the cutting more efficient, using torches to remove strips of the ship's hull plating and form a guide for the cutting chain. They're also using a big mechanical claw to pluck cars from inside the ship to shed weight before sections are cut and lifted.

Conservationists worry the longer the shipwreck stays in St. Simons Sound, the greater pollution threat it poses to the area's waterways, beaches and saltwater marshes.

The wreck site is surrounded by a mesh barrier intended to contain debris for cleanup once the big sections get removed. Boats equipped with skimmers and absorbent booms stay on standby to mop up any leaking oil or other pollutants.

Still, bumpers, tires and other car parts falling from the ship have been found on beaches. Birds have been found coated in oil. And though most fuel has been drained from the ship's tanks, there's concern that an estimated 44,000 gallons (166,500 liters) remaining could come gushing out once the cutting chain severs the ship's fuel line.

"The longer anything sits in the water, the ship or these cars, it breaks down," said Susan Inman, coast-keeper for the Altamaha Riverkeeper conservation group. "You have lead paint on your ship. You have all these plastic pieces, hydraulic fluid. A lot of this stuff is just going to be around for years."