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

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

A violent storm kicked up Monday, stranding cleanup crews in Dutch Harbor for days. Yesterday was the first time officials were able to fly over the wreckage and determine how the harsh weather conditions had further damaged the ship.

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“What they found was that the bow was almost totally submerged,” Leslie Pearson, manager of spill prevention and emergency response for Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation, said last night. “It looks like it’s been twisted and it’s probable that it lost its entire load.”

Up until now, most of the oil was presumed to be still on board the Selendang Ayu and possibly salvageable. The storm, which came in from the northeast, may have dispersed much of the oil out to sea, but it also could be washing up on shore. The extent of new damage to wildlife and shorelines will depend largely on wind direction, wave action and how widely the oil has dispersed.

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. 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 today and clear the deck so helicopters could access the vessel’s remains, Francis said.

Starting Sunday, the state and Coast Guard plan to start checking water quality in the area. They plan to drop crab pots filled with absorbent material to see how much oil has settled to the bottom of the Bering Sea. Officials will also catch crabs to see how much oil they may have ingested.

Depending on the results, officials will decide Monday whether crab-fishing season in Makushin Bay will take place in January as planned.

The weather yesterday gave response officials a brief reprieve, but winds today 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; a Coast Guard rescue helicopter crashed soon after lifting them off the freighter.