The bow section of a grounded freighter off Unalaska Island has sunk and the 176,473 gallons of oil inside is thought to have already spilled into the Bering Sea.

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The bow section of a grounded freighter off Unalaska Island has sunk and the 176,473 gallons of oil inside is thought to have already spilled into the Bering Sea.


Violent storms and harsh conditions had kept salvage and cleanup crews stuck in Dutch Harbor for days. When skies cleared today, officials found the front section of the Selendang Ayu had sunk to the tip of its bow.


The ship is in two pieces in the Aleutian chain after drifting powerless and running aground Dec. 8. The 738-foot freighter was carrying soybeans, 424,000 gallons of intermediate fuel oil and 18,000 gallons of diesel.


Salvage crews still plan to attempt unloading more than 80,000 gallons of fuel from two smaller tanks in the stern of the ship. But the three biggest tanks — totaling 321,058 gallons of oil and stretching the length of the ship — are believed to be ruptured and the fuel inside lost, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Sara Francis.


The bow section had earlier been judged unsafe to attempt removing the 176,473 gallons of fuel in the tank there, but response officials had hoped a salvage team could come up with a plan to recover that oil.


“It appears that the tank … which we had previously had hope of recovering all its oil from, has probably lost all its contents,” said Marti Early of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.


What remains of the ship is grounded near sensitive wildlife habitats that support sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, tanner crabs, and halibut. A shoreline cleanup resulted in more than 100 bags of oily waste recovered before the weather forced crews to suspend the operation.


Twenty dead birds and a dead sea otter have been recovered so far. Twenty live birds have been found covered with oil.


A team from the salvage company SMIT International was assembling in Dutch Harbor and a special pump was being transported from South Africa to transfer fuel from the two rear tanks to 2,000-gallon containers in an operation that was to begin after the new year.


Members of the team planned to board the stern Friday and clear the deck with torches so helicopters could access the vessel’s remains, Francis said.


The weather today gave response officials a brief reprieve, but winds Friday were expected to increase again to 35 knots and seas up to 10 feet.


The Selendang Ayu was hauling soybeans to China when it grounded into a shoal after drifting for nearly two days. Six crew members were lost at sea and are presumed dead when a Coast Guard rescue helicopter crashed soon after lifting them off the freighter.