Coast Guard conducts public hearing in capsized Golden Ray investigation

    A crane places a modified shipping container around the motor vessel Golden Ray in St. Simons Sound as a part of an ongoing scouring protection plan in early August. A public hearing started Monday as part of the federal investigation into the ship wreck off the Georgia coast a year ago. Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Himes/ St. Simons Sound Incident Response

    An investigation into why the massive Golden Ray car carrier capsized off the Georgia coast soon after it left port in Brunswick picks up steam this week with testimony by the ship’s captain, crew members and shipping experts and it’s available to the public through online hearings.

    After getting off to a bumpy start Monday interrupted by technical difficulties, the U.S. Coast Guard’s first public airing of events that led to the Sept. 8, 2019, wreck off of St. Simons Sound is set to resume Tuesday. The hearing is scheduled to take place over seven days.

    Monday the timeline leading up the wreck and a maritime pilot’s description of the challenges of navigating large vessels in-and-out of the Port of Brunswick dominated the first day of the hearings.

    The crew lost control as they maneuvered the mammoth 656-foot-long cargo ship that set sail for Baltimore with more than 4,000 Kias and Hyundais on board. With hundreds of cars and tens of thousands of gallons of oil, the vessel remains overturned in the channel a year after the accident.

    Last month U.S. Sen. David Perdue wrote Coast Guard Rear Admiral Eric Jones to complain that the wreck remains in place as peak hurricane season arrives.

    A report on the cause of the wreck is supposed to include information from the hearing. The report will aim to determine whether human error or technical flaws are to blame and if any changes in safety procedures are needed, Coast Guard Capt. Blake Welborn said.

    “The purpose of this investigation is to determine the cause of this incident so that similar casualties may be prevented in the future,” he said.

    In addition to the Golden Ray’s captain, its engineer, safety experts, and a manager of ocean carrier services for Hyundai Glovis are among those scheduled to make presentations.

    All of the crew safely escaped the wreckage, with some members rescued after they were trapped on board for a day. 

    The Golden Ray is one of the most expensive marine disasters in the nation’s history, likely costing hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a representative of ship operator Gallagher Marine.

    Monday’s presentation included the playing of a recording made as some crew members realized the ship was sinking, with the sound cutting off as alarms blared. 

    Planned operations to cut the ship up for removal and carry the pieces out on barges is now on hold until at least October due to hurricane season and to allow time to improve COVID-19 protocols after some crew members exposed to infection were quarantined this summer. 

    The handling of the wreck’s cleanup and the investigation has concerned environmentalists calling for a broad assessment of the damage done.

    A chief concern for environmental groups, including the Altamaha Riverkeeper and One Hundred Miles, is the potential for a significant oil spill when the ship is cut into pieces and removed. 

    The Coast Guard’s Golden Ray Formal Investigation Hearing is available for streaming at https://livestream.com/uscginvestigations. The public can submit comments and questions at [email protected]

    In addition to the Coast Guard, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Republic of the Marshall Islands Maritime Administrator, and the Korean Maritime Safety Tribunal are co-hosting the hearing.

    Stanley Dunlap
    Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.