Furious winds and surf yesterday prevented rescuers from finding six men who were tossed into the Bering Sea by a helicopter crash, and kept cleanup crews from an oil spill that...

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Furious winds and surf yesterday prevented rescuers from finding six men who were tossed into the Bering Sea by a helicopter crash, and kept cleanup crews from an oil spill that could become Alaska’s worst in 15 years.

The oil is spreading from a grounded freighter that split in two in high seas off the remote wildlife-rich Unalaska Island in Alaska’s Aleutian chain.

After a full day of searching, the ship’s six missing crew members were feared dead in the frigid waters. And the broken freighter’s half-million gallons of thick, viscous fuel had begun gurgling out along the island’s coast.

“This has the potential to be the largest spill since the Exxon Valdez, but we don’t know that yet,” said Greg Siekaniec, head of the Alaska Maritime Refuge, which includes the area of the spill. “There’s a sheen at least a mile long that’s starting to disperse, and the pieces of the ship are resting on the bottom 50 yards apart. We just don’t know how many of its holds have been breached.”

State and federal biologists who flew over the accident site on the west side of Unalaska Island yesterday reported a potential nightmare for wildlife, with dozens of shore birds, and cormorants and sea otters already swimming through the oiled water.

But with weather preventing even Coast Guard cutters from nearing the wrecked freighter, and with forecasts calling for 20-foot seas and 40-knot winds today, Alaskan officials already were preparing for a long, drawn-out cleanup.

“What I’m looking at is a situation, and pictures, that are pretty bad,” said Kurt Fredriksson, acting director of Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation. “We’re in a very tough weather window. The future does not look bright. We’re looking at weeks if not months.”

Freighter at a glance

Selendang Ayu

Built: 1998, China

Length: 738 feet

Owners: IMC Transworld, a Singapore-based shipping company

U.S. incidents: No reports of spills, violations or investigations on record with the U.S. Coast Guard.

Source: IMC Transworld

Leslie Pearson, head of oil-spill response for the state of Alaska, echoed that forecast.

“This is probably the most remote big spill we’ve ever had,” she said.

The 738-foot Malaysian-flagged Selendang Ayu, owned by Singapore-based IMC Group, had been carting soybeans from Tacoma to China when its main engines failed early Tuesday morning. After several unsuccessful efforts to bring it under control, Coast Guard helicopters began plucking crew members from the ship, and one of the choppers plunged into the 43-degree water carrying three Coast Guard crew and seven men from the ship.

Three Coast Guard personnel and one of the freighter’s crewmen were rescued.

Families contacted

IMC crew manager Loh C.W. Weng said agents in India and the Philippines had contacted the families of the six missing crew members, and company representatives were in Dutch Harbor.

“Of course they feel very sad and want to know what is going on. They are praying very hard that everyone is OK. We are praying very hard for them,” Weng said.

According to Weng, the missing were Indian citizens Z.M. Vaz, age 46; Blaise M. Mascarenhas, 33; Narendra S. Yadav, 52; Durg V. Singh, 54; and Didlar Singh, 44. Carlos Flores Santiago, 45, is the missing crew member from the Philippines.

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

The Selendang Ayu drifts toward Unalaska Island after losing power. Efforts by a Coast Guard cutter and a tugboat failed to bring the ship under control before it ran aground and broke apart.
Isolated Unalaska was blanketed in darkness until after 10:15 a.m. yesterday, leaving rescuers little choice but to await first light to continue the hunt for the six crewmen and begin assessing the extent of the spill.

The Coast Guard transported an oil-containment boom to Dutch Harbor, and a small cutter-like vessel called a buoy tender was steaming toward the island’s west side late in the day. But by day’s end, with still no reasonable assessment of how much oil had spilled, experts were saying that the best-case scenario would be that the winds change direction and start pushing the spilled oil out to sea.

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

“The area is just rich, both with marine and terrestrial life,” Siekaniec said. “The freshwater streams are home to pink and sockeye salmon. The sea-lion stocks are already depleted. And southwest Alaska’s otter populations are down upwards of 80 percent in a decade.

“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.”

The area has long served as an important fishing ground for the native Qawalangin Tribe, which is located on the island. Tribal members rely on salmon runs in streams there for subsistence fishing and catch halibut and crab, said Wendy Hawthorne, a tribal member and chief executive officer of the native corporation associated with the tribe, the Ounalashka Corporation. Several other native corporations have land that could be at risk from the spill, she said.

The salmon that come from there are a vital part of people’s diet, because food there is so expensive, she said.

Coast Guard video

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

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

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

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“Everybody’s waiting to see how bad it’s going to be,” said Hawthorne, who spent the day at meetings with state and federal officials tracking the ship and the spill. “I think everybody is just feeling kind of sick to their stomachs.”

But it was still too soon for anyone to gauge how much oil was in the water.

The Coast Guard dispatched a C-130 plane which was expected to give the rescuers a better shot at least at finding the missing Filipino and Indian crew members. All told, 20 of the 26 crew members were plucked safely from the ship.

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

Oil-spill comparison

The Exxon Valdez spill, at 10.8 million gallons, was the largest in state history.

The state’s last major spill in the Aleutians was in 1997, when the 368-foot Japanese freighter Kuroshima hit a rock near Dutch Harbor. That vessel carried 240,000 gallons of fuel (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,” said Gary Folley, on-scene coordinator for the state.

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 is setting at 4:30 p.m.

Portions of this report were provided by the Associated Press.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or