The U.S. Coast Guard wrapped up a seven day public hearing on Sept. 22 as part of the federal investigation into what caused the 2019 shipwreck on St. Simons Sound. A naval architect for the coast guard testified that a top heavy load likely played a factor in it capsizing. Kevin Austin/Contributed
A U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant testified Tuesday that the Golden Ray might have capsized at St. Simons Sound last year after leaving the Port of Brunswick because unstable loading left it susceptible to tipping over, according to an analysis of the wreck.
A public hearing into the cause of the Golden Ray shipwreck that was streamed live online due to the coronavirus wrapped up Tuesday after seven days of testimony in Brunswick from shipping experts, the captain and crew members aboard the massive car carrier on Sept. 8, 2019.
Coast Guard Lt. Ian Oviatt, a naval architect with the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Center, testified that either an additional 1,500 gallons of water in the ship’s ballast tanks as a counterweight or rearranging the cars on the deck might have kept the boat upright as the crew steered to the right to head out to sea.
Instead, that evening 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. The crew of 24 was rescued safely.
Coast guard engineers used ship data and documents to recreate computer models of the Golden Ray that allowed them to calculate the weight of the vessel, position of the cargo and anything else that might have made it unstable.
As the ship turned, the incorrectly loaded vehicles likely caused the top-heavy ship to lean. The problem worsened because of an open door, Oviatt said.
“It’s likely that during the capsize the vessel began to take on water from the pilot door,” which caused to it overturn at a faster rate, Oviatt said.
Coast Guard Capt. Blake Welborn said that the testimony and other evidence from the hearing will help the investigative team put together a final report on what caused the wreck and how to prevent similar accidents from happening.
“Even though the public side of this investigation is coming to an end,” Welborn said. “The members of this formal investigation will continue to work tirelessly as the report is drafted and the recommendations are established.” 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.
During the hearing, the ship’s captain and the pilot who guided the Golden Ray that evening more than a year ago testified that they expected the ship to safely make it through St. Simons Sound like thousands of car-carriers before.
Jonathan Tennant of the Brunswick Harbor Pilots said all of a sudden the ship began overturning as he attempted to direct it into the next channel.
He then contacted the U.S. Coast Guard, which rescued the pilot and most of the crew. Four crew members trapped on board were safely taken off the ship the next day after rescuers cut into the hull.
A multiagency command has spent the past year making plans to carve the ship into eight giant chunks to be hauled away by barges while the investigation proceeded. Officials hope to begin the first cut sometime in October.
The handling of the wreck’s cleanup and the investigation has concerned environmentalists calling for a broad assessment of the damage done.
Environmental groups, including the Altamaha Riverkeeper and One Hundred Miles, worry about an oil spill that might damage nearby salt marshes and sea life if a major storm hits near the wreck or when the Golden Ray is cut into pieces for removal.
The ship removal stands to become one of the most expensive marine disasters in the nation’s history, likely costing hundreds of millions of dollars, a Gallagher Marine representative told Fox 28 Savannah in June. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989, it spilled 11 million gallons of oil and the company settled a suit for compensatory damages for $287 million, or $597 million in today’s dollars.
The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was Congress’ response to the Exxon Valdez wreck and the resulting environmental disaster. The act took decision-making power away from a ship’s owner and placed it with the federal government, through the Coast Guard.
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