An oil spill in the heart of an Alaska wildlife refuge may not be as big as initially feared, but the harsh weather that first cracked a freighter in half still threatens to unleash...

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An oil spill in the heart of an Alaska wildlife refuge may not be as big as initially feared, but the harsh weather that first cracked a freighter in half still threatens to unleash thousands more gallons of viscous oil.

Salvage crews yesterday scrambled to figure out what to do with the grounded ship during a lull between storms. A Coast Guard helicopter lowered three men onto the stern of the wave-washed ship to assess the damage and gauge the ship’s stability.

When the 738-foot Selendang Ayu ran aground in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands Wednesday, people worried it could immediately unleash up to 480,000 gallons of thick bunker oil contained in tanks aboard the ship. Heavy seas cleaved the ship in half, and both portions of the ship are aground near the entrance to Skan Bay.

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Early estimates put the initial release at around 140,000 gallons, with warnings that further oil could spill if more fuel tanks ruptured. But the Coast Guard now says a 40,000-gallon tank ruptured and its contents were emptied. Another tank that holds up to 104,000 gallons is leaking.

A tank with a 176,000-gallon capacity is in the bow portion of the ship, which was not inspected yesterday.

The Coast Guard now lowered its total estimate of bunker oil on board to 424,000 gallons.

The estimates and the successful tour of the stern portion of the ship offered the first glimmer of good news since the ship with a crew of 26 lost power in heavy seas Tuesday.

Coast Guard video

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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“I hope they’re right. What could be better than having less oil out there?” said Greg Siekaniec, manager of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. “I’m just very concerned about the status of that vessel yet.”

Before yesterday the search for six crew members lost at sea and the spill response were largely stymied by winter storms. The six missing men, who were aboard a Coast Guard rescue helicopter that crashed Wednesday while evacuating the freighter, are presumed lost.

The stern of the ship appears stable for now, but the bow of the ship has pivoted on the rocks, said Coast Guard spokeswoman, Petty Officer Sara Francis.

One hope is that the ship can be stabilized enough to pump the remaining oil from it.

Meanwhile, efforts to assess the environmental damage and to guard vulnerable waterways took another step forward.

A ship bearing four biologists is expected to reach the crash site sometime today. They hope to land on the beaches near the spill to examine damage, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Petty Officer Cindy Marshall.

Reports yesterday suggested the oil continued to spread. A refuge biologist flew over the scene and spotted tar balls and slicks of matted oil in both Skan Bay and in the larger Makushin Bay to the north, Siekaniec said.

The area harbors ample wildlife, including salmon runs, sea lions and otters.

The National Transportation Safety Board dispatched investigators to examine what caused the ship to lose power, and to scrutinize safety issues.

The incident began when the ship lost power, first reporting the problem to the Coast Guard Tuesday. It never regained power.

The ship had earlier left Tacoma and was bound for China with a load of soybeans.

There were no problems evident during a thorough check by the Coast Guard on Nov. 24 while the ship was in Tacoma, said John Dwyer, chief of the Coast Guard’s prevention department in Puget Sound, which oversees safety regulations and inspections.

Some questions are arising about whether a lack of safety equipment on the ship increased the dangers for the crew. The ship had three immersion suits for the 26-member crew — wet suits designed to protect people in cold water.

International maritime regulations require only three immersion suits, in addition to a fully enclosed life boat, Dwyer said.

Ships registered in the U.S. must have an immersion suit for each person on board when sailing in waters like the Puget Sound or in Alaska, he said.

He wasn’t sure if an immersion suit would have made any difference in this case, because he doesn’t know what killed the crew.

Jim Lawrence, a spokesman for the Singapore-based IMC Group, which manages the Selendang Ayu, noted that the suit supply complied with international regulations.

Asked if more could have made a difference, he said, “I think you’d want to talk to Mr. Tsao about that,” referring to Frederick Tsao, chairman of the IMC Group’s board. “I’m sure that someone would have thoughts about that.”

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or