Coast Guard: Removal of capsized ship off Georgia coast could take weeks — or longer

Coast Guard: Removal of capsized ship off Georgia coast could take weeks — or longer

It's expected to take several weeks to remove the Golden Ray from the St. Simons sound, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — The U.S. Coast Guard says it doesn't know how long it will take to remove a large cargo ship from its sideways position just off the Georgia coast. But it likely won't be a fast process.

"It is not going to be quick," Commander Norm Witt of the Marine Safety Unit in  Savannah said late Tuesday. "We're going to measure this in weeks, possibly months, as opposed to hours and days."

The ship, which is 656 feet long and weighs 71,000 tons, departed the Brunswick port bound for Baltimore about 1 a.m. Sunday. There was soon a fire on board. About 2 a.m., emergency responders, including the Coast Guard, were notified that the ship had capsized in St. Simons Sound off the shore of St. Simons Island.

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The Golden Ray had 24 people aboard, including 23 crew members and a pilot, along with 4,200 vehicles. Twenty people were rescued quickly, but the other four could not immediately make their way off the boat.

Rescue teams tapped on the ship's metal and eventually heard taps back, indicating the four trapped aboard were still alive. It took several hours Monday, but all four crew members were extracted. All were in remarkably good condition, the Coast Guard said.

The focus has now moved to removing the ship and debris it spilled into the sound. There are also environmental concerns. Details of what it will take to clean up the area have not been publicly released.

"Obviously our number one priority is safety, public safety and safety for first responders, potential environmental impacts that we're attempting to mitigate, and there's also some very real concerns on economic impact," Witt said. "Again, we're trying to mitigate those as best we can."

The shipping channel could re-open as early Thursday, the Coast Guard said. But Witt cautioned that was an aggressive goal.

A variety of agencies, including the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, are assisting with the operation, the Coast Guard said. There is pollution, but it is limited in scope, Witt said.

"The fuel on the cargo, the vehicles, is probably a lesser concern than the fuel on the ship," he said.

But environmental advocates worry about the damage already done.

"Any leak is big," Susan Inman with the Altamaha Riverkeeper, said Monday. "This is just another blow to our coast."

Inman, who serves as the organization's coastkeeper, said there was a smell of gasoline in the area, Gasoline was also visible in the water, both signs of contamination.