When the freighter Kuroshima ran aground on Unalaska Island the day before Thanksgiving 1997, conditions were terrible for stopping an oil spill. Winds reached 90 mph, pushing...

Share story

When the freighter Kuroshima ran aground on Unalaska Island the day before Thanksgiving 1997, conditions were terrible for stopping an oil spill.

Winds reached 90 mph, pushing oil over protective booms and into a freshwater lake. The short days of the Alaskan winter drastically limited the time crews could contain the 39,000 gallons of fuel that poured from the ship. Punishing weather hampered the seaborne response.

Now, as another shattered freighter spills unknown quantities of heavy oil into the storm-tossed Bering Sea on a remote side of the island, the situation in 1997 almost looks easy by comparison, Unalaska Mayor Shirley Marquardt said yesterday:

“A lot of us are going, ‘Holy cows, this is 10 times worse than the Kuroshima.’ ”

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

The effort to contain the damage, stem the leaking oil and find six missing crewmembers of the freighter Selendang Ayu inched forward yesterday in a near-constant struggle against the elements. The geography, weather and remoteness of the site in the Aleutian chain of islands has reduced the pace of the response to slow motion.

Bad weather halted an overflight yesterday to survey the damage and figure out whether the freighter, broken in two by the sea’s heavy pounding, continued to leak some of its 480,000 gallons of heavy bunker oil used to fuel the ship. The ship also carries 21,000 gallon of diesel fuel.

A five-man boat owned by an Unalaska Island-based company was unable to place booms at the mouths of salmon-bearing freshwater streams feeding into Skan Bay, where the freighter lies broken in half. However, the crew was able to lay out booms in Cannery Bay, some distance from the spill.

Another boat left Dutch Harbor last night for the 12- to 14-hour trip to the accident scene, ferrying people to assess the oil damage. No roads lead to the area.

“This is a real difficult operation, I can’t emphasize that enough,” said Lynda Giguere, of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

Coast Guard video

The wreckage of the helicopter that crashed while rescuing the crew of the freighter.

· See the video clip

Coast Guard crew attempting to send a tow-line to the freighter, before it broke in two.

· See the video clip

An aerial view of the freighter Selendang Ayu before the vessel broke in two.

· See the video clip

Download RealPlayer

Environmental officials don’t know how much damage has been sustained by wildlife in an area rich with salmon, halibut, sea lions, otters, sea birds and crab. Oil cleanup crews yesterday couldn’t assess how far the oil had spread.

Greg Siekaniec, manager of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which includes Unalaska Island, was largely left with unanswered questions. One sea otter and some cormorants were seen swimming in the oily water during a Thursday flight over the scene, he said.

“Our concern level is way up there right now,” he said.

The oil appears to have already spread to neighboring Makushin Bay, another wildlife-rich area. A ship reported seeing tar balls and oil sheens in the bay, Giguere said.

Experienced oil-cleanup veterans say the situation poses a host of challenges.

Skimmers used to suck oil off water don’t work well in high seas. Equipment and crews must first be flown or shipped to Unalaska, and then moved to the remote side of the island.

Weather can foil plans or endanger people, as happened Wednesday when a Coast Guard helicopter attempting to rescue the ship’s crew plunged into the water. The three-person Coast Guard crew and one crewman from the ship were plucked from the water. Six other members of the ship’s crew who were aboard the downed helicopter remained missing yesterday.

Twenty crew members were taken safely from the ship.

“It’s one of the most exposed and rough oceans in the United States, so it’s going to be very dangerous for any response personnel,” said Jim Peschel, senior project manager for NRC Environmental Services, an oil-spill cleanup company that he said may be called to the scene.

Dutch Harbor, on the side of the island opposite the freighter, has become the staging ground for operations. Two Coast Guard cutters were dispatched to the scene, including one from Cordova, Alaska, equipped with a vacuum for sucking up oil. The Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley is already near the broken ship.

The Malaysian-flagged Selendang Ayu was bound from Tacoma to China when it lost power Monday and began drifting until it eventually ran aground. It was following what is known as the Great Circle route, which shortens the distance between North America and Asia by first heading north through Alaska and then west. The 738-foot ship is owned by the Singapore-based IMC Group.

Until responders can board the vessel, the extent of the spill is guesswork, said Jim Lawrence, a company representative. But that step will have to wait, he said yesterday as winds picked up.

“One of the first priorities is safety in working on a response,” Lawrence said. “It’s a dangerous environment there.”

The Associated Press contributed information to this report.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com