There were fears of an environmental disaster last night after a coal freighter ran aground in massive seas off a beach north of Sydney and threatened to break up, spilling its fuel.
Three other ships issued distress calls as ferocious storms, with torrential downpours and waves of up to 65ft, lashed Australia's east coast yesterday. The wild weather, caused by the worst low-pressure system in 30 years, washed away cars, leaving at least seven people missing. Ferries and international flights were cancelled, and 60,000 homes blacked out.
The 40,000-ton bulk carrier, Pasha Bulker, was queuing to load off Newcastle, one of the country's largest coal export terminals, when a storm surge ripped her from her moorings and swept her on to a sandbank. Two rescue helicopters winched the 21 Filipino crew to safety. The ship, which is carrying 700 tons of oil and 38 tons of diesel, was still being pounded by huge breakers last night, 300ft off a popular surf and swimming spot, Nobbys Beach.
Police said she appeared to be buckling "and may break up". Marine pollution teams were on stand-by. But Chris Oxenbould, chief executive of the New South Wales maritime authority, said that conditions were still too dangerous for preventive measures to be taken.
On the Central Coast, between Sydney and Newcastle, a car carrying four people was swept away when a section of highway collapsed into a flooded creek. The empty car was found and rescue workers were searching for its occupants, believed to include two children. The driver of another vehicle, who dived into the raging waters to help them, was also believed missing.
An aerial search found no trace of a car carrying two elderly people, said to have been washed off a bridge in the Hunter Valley. Another car, a 4x4 vehicle, was also reportedly lost in the flash floods.
The storms dumped nearly 8in of rain on the east coast. With winds of up to 56mph, and worsening weather predicted overnight, there were fears for the safety of other motorists at the start of a long weekend. Emergency services urged people to stay at home.
As the Pasha Bulker lay stranded in shallow water, one witness told local media: "It's getting absolutely belted. It's an amazing sight, the spray coming right over the top of this huge tanker." Plans for tugs to pull it out to sea were abandoned because of the monstrous swell. "If this ship breaks up, spilling thousands of litres of heavy fuel into the ocean, it will be a tragedy for the marine environment in the area," said Ian Cohen, a Greens politician. "We could see the entire coastline in that region blanketed with black tarry slick."
Another bulk carrier, Sea Confidence, was driven within half a mile of Stockton Beach, north of Newcastle, but was towed back out to sea by a tug. Another put out a distress call as she was swept towards shore, but managed to reach deeper water.
The crew of the Pasha Bulker were rescued one by one in a tricky operation, with waves crashing over the bow and the helicopters buffeted by cyclonic winds. Paramedics said the men were in good health, but shaken.