Officials say 30 missing crew members are presumed dead after an oil tanker that had been burning off the coast of China for over a week exploded and sank on Sunday, leaving behind a 10-square-kilometer belt of spilled fuel in the surrounding waters.
The Panama-registered Iranian oil tanker collided with a Hong Kong-registered bulk freighter on the evening of January 6 roughly 160 nautical miles (296 kilometers) east of the Yangtze River estuary in Shanghai. On Sunday afternoon, eight days after the collision, the vessel suddenly ignited, with smoke and flames rising 800 meters above the accident site. The entire ship sank between 3 and 5pm.
Only three bodies were recovered from the site, with no survivors rescued from the Sanchi oil tanker, which had a 32-member crew that included 30 Iranians and two Bangladeshis. (The freighter's 21 crew members, all of whom were Chinese nationals, were saved).
“There is no hope of finding survivors among the members of the crew,” a spokesman for the Iranian rescue team told the country's state broadcaster in Tehran before the sinking. “Despite our efforts, it has not been possible to extinguish the fire and recover the bodies due to repeated explosions and gas leaks."
The spokesman added that the tanker's crew likely died within the first hour of the January 6 accident due to the explosion and subsequent release of gas.
The tanker was en route to South Korea and carrying 136,000 tonnes of condensate oil when it collided, immediately erupting into flames. Environmental authorities rushed to contain oil leaking from the vessel, which had been burning and spilling into the nearby waters since the collision.
China’s State Oceanic Administration (SOA) announced on Sunday that a large amount of the spilled oil was still burning on the water's surface, and that they were monitoring the area to assess its environmental impact. Just prior to the sinking, consistency of petroleum material in the water was roughly 25 micrograms per liter, though experts remain divided on the severity of the situation.
In a video shared to social media, a CCTV reporter onboard a SOA plane viewing the scene from above suggested that the wreckage was extensive.
"The oil spill situation is very serious," he was quoted as saying.
But the SOA downplayed oil spill fears.
“Because this is [a] light crude oil spill, relatively speaking it has a much smaller impact than other oil spills, because this kind of oil is especially volatile – most of it has entered the atmosphere, so it’s had less impact on the ocean,” said a senior engineer for the SOA. “This area should be considered the open sea, very far from places where people live, so the human impact should be minimal.”
Last week, analysts had warned that the ship could leak the biggest oil slick seen in decades, potentially devastating marine life in the area. However, Greenpeace later released a statement saying that most of the oil would have likely burned off in the flames rather than enter the water.
Experts told Sixth Tone last week that an explosion and sinking would be the "worst-case scenario," and that oil spilled into the seawater would likely affect the marine ecosystem. The East China Sea fishing grounds, where the collision occurred, supply roughly 40 percent of the country's fish harvests.
Meanwhile, recovery efforts were hampered due to extremely hot temperatures and toxic fumes from the blaze, with rescue workers finding it difficult to withstand the 89-degree (C) flames. However, the vessel's blackbox was recovered on Saturday.
At least 13 vessels — 10 from China, two from Japan and one from South Korea — were dispatched to help out with rescue efforts.
[Images via China Daily]