Rescue and cleanup crews are racing to an isolated island in Alaska's Aleutian chain to hunt for six missing seamen and begin assessing environmental damage from a grounded freighter that broke apart last night on rocky, wildlife-rich shores and started leaking at least some of its half-million gallons of oil.

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Rescue and cleanup crews are racing to an isolated island in Alaska’s Aleutian chain to hunt for six missing seamen and begin assessing environmental damage from a grounded freighter that broke apart last night on rocky, wildlife-rich shores and started leaking at least some of its half-million gallons of oil.


A C-130 plane and three helicopters are involved in the search today for the six crew from the Malaysian-flagged cargo carrier who plunged into the frigid Bering Sea after a Coast Guard chopper crashed yesterday evening while trying to rescue them from the drifting vessel Selendang Ayu, enroute from Seattle to Asia loaded with soybeans.


Coast Guard officials, however, have said survival time in the 43-degree water was typically limited to about three hours, and the men have been missing more than 15 hours.


Isolated Unalaska Island was blanketed in darkness until sometime after 10:15 a.m., today and rescuers faced battling 30-knot winds and 25-foot swells, the Coast Guard officials said this morning.


Rescuers said there was little they could do but await first light to continue the hunt for the six shipmates and begin assessing the extent of the spill.


“Once we have those assessments complete, we’ll know what kind of day we’re going to have,” said Coast Guard chief petty officer Roger Weatherall.


The Coast Guard also was transporting an oil containment boom to Dutch Harbor.


State and federal biologists were scheduled to fly over the accident site on the west side of Unalaska Island to assess how much of the thick, viscous bunker fuel had escaped into the seabird-rich Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, where the vessel cracked in two late last night.


“We know there is oil in the water,” said Gary Folley, on-scene coordinator for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.


Folley said that a rescue swimmer — the wetsuit-clad divers who drop into water and load victims into retrieval baskets or hold them above water — reeked of oil when he was pulled out of the water.


“This afternoon we’ll have a better idea of the extent of the slick,” Folley said.


Even though the carrier’s heavy bunker oil had been transferred to inboard tanks and the fuel heaters were turned off to thicken the fuel, wildlife experts were fearful that it could create an environmental catastrophe.


Greg Siekaniec, head of the Alaska Maritime Refuge, said the region was a “high value area” for seabirds, from wintering eiders to kittiwakes, and was home to Steller’s sea lions, sea otters and harbor seas.


“Right where it was there’re salmon streams and sockeye salmon; it’s a very wildlife rich area,” he said. “It’s a very rocky shoreline, fairly significant bluffs, which in summer would be covered with cliff nesters. A rocky beach haul out area, where sea lions like to loaf.”


Yesterday’s helicopter crash capped an arduous 24-hour effort to bring the Malaysian-flagged carrier loaded with soybeans and owned by Singapore-based IMC Group, safely ashore after its engines lost power in rough seas early Tuesday morning. A tow-line attached from the drifting ship to a tug snapped after 12 hours Tuesday, and the ship’s anchor was lost at sea. Coast Guard helicopters yesterday afternoon began ferrying crew members off the ship.


More than two dozen people already had been transported to safety when another helicopter carrying three Coast Guard crew and seven shipmates crashed about 6:20 p.m. yesterday, spilling every one aboard into 43-degree waters. With the help of Coast Guard swimmers another helicopter and a Coast Guard cutter were able to pluck all three Coast Guard members and one shipman from the icy seas.


The other six disappeared in the darkness, and the ship later broke apart near the craggy wildlife-rich shore.


“The survival time is right around three hours in those conditions,” Rear Adm. James Olson, commander of the Coast Guard in Alaska, said earlier.


The C-130 was expected to give the Coast Guard rescuers a better shot at least at finding the missing Filipino and Indian crew members.


“The C-130 serves as a communications unit for the others,” Weatherall said. “It can circle aerially for hours. It also has equipment on board to help hone in on people who might be in the water. They might see something that the helicopter crew doesn’t see.”


The state’s last major spill in the region was in 1997, when the 368-foot Japanese freighter Kuroshima hit a rock near Dutch Harbor. That vessel carried 240,000 gallons of fuel (only about 39,000 gallons of which spilled), didn’t break apart and was in an area accessible by road. Still, it was still “an incredibly difficult cleanup,” Folley said.


The Selendang Ayu is an area not accessible by land, is twice the size and is carrying twice the load, and “the Coast Guard helicopter crash underscores how dangerous it is,” he said.


High winds make any cleanup more difficult, and the winter sun will set by about 4:30 p.m.


The Selendang Ayu is a single-deck bulk carrier built in China in 1998. It is owned by IMC Transworld, a subsidiary of IMC Group.


Company representatives are in Dutch Harbor and have met with Coast Guard officials, Olson said.


Olson said all Coast Guard personnel had been accounted for.