Napoli salvage task delayed

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The Independent Online

A painstaking operation to remove more than 2,000 containers from the grounded cargo ship Napoli was postponed again tonight.

Salvors were hoping to start unloading MSC Napoli yesterday but the task of mooring and securing a barge crane alongside her has delayed the task until tomorrow at the earliest.

Napoli is listing heavily a mile off Sidmouth, Devon, and the salvage team has to get close enough to her to begin offloading without causing more containers to fall and pollute the sea.

The lengthy process, expected to take up to five months, was expected to start tomorrow once a mooring wire has been replaced on the barge.

Fred Caygill, Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) spokesman, said: "It is planned to start tomorrow but as we have seen today, until it is safe, they won't do it."

His colleague Mark Clark added: "They have had an issue rigging. " They have to replace one of the mooring wires and with the light as it is, it is unlikely they will get any containers off tonight."

He added: "With such a dangerous work area they have to take the greatest of care. The vessel is at an acute angle with crushed containers and spilling goods. People have to get on those containers and secure heavy chains so it's a very dangerous job.

"They are going to reduce risk to an absolute minimum and if that takes as long as it takes the MCA is perfectly happy.

"Their lives are more valuable than the cargo."

The operation has been likened by coastguards to the game of jenga - removing wooden blocks from a pile without toppling it.

The largest crane will remove the cargo - laden with everything from BMW motorbikes to nappies - in priority order starting at the ship's stern to reduce stress on Napoli's hull.

A smaller crane will then transfer the containers to a barge ready for transportation to Portland Port, Dorset, in batches of up to 90 a time.

The process would have taken just a few days in port but Napoli never made it that far.

She suffered hull damage in a mid Channel storm on January 18 when 26 crew were rescued after abandoning into a lifeboat.

The 62,000-tonne vessel was then grounded in Lyme Bay on a World Heritage Site coast amid fears she would sink while on tow to Portland.

A frenzy of looters combed nearby Branscombe Beach after 103 containers fell overboard and 56 washed ashore last week.

The MCA fears that more containers could fall into the sea during the unloading operation and has urged people to stay away.

John Bass, Branscombe Parish Council chairman, said: "We know plans are in place if any more containers come off the ship and come ashore, the place can be sealed off quite quickly to stop any repeats of what we had here on Monday."

Work to pump the 3,500 tonnes of fuel oil on Napoli into a waiting tanker continues round-the-clock.

So far half the fuel oil has been pumped off emptying two of the ship's four main fuel tanks.

It is expected to take at least another week to recover all the fuel.

Napoli's flooded engine room leaked a quarter of a tonne of oil yesterday. Salvors used special skimmers to stop the leak which created a rainbow sheen on the water nearby.

Toby Stone, MCA head of counter pollution and response, said the oil was dispersing naturally.

He added: "There was a minor oil leak coming from the engine room yesterday. The salvors worked yesterday and last night and skimmed the oil and when we flew over today there was just a minor sheen.

"It's minimal pollution. There is no thick black oil."

Napoli has lost around 60 tonnes of oil so far which has been successfully treated with dispersant.

Up to 10,000 birds affected by the oil may have died in total. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) volunteers have been combing a 100-mile stretch of beach this weekend looking for more.

The wreck may also threaten as many as 28 sites of special scientific interest, including the Exe Estuary, Chesil Beach and the Fleet SSSI.

Once the oil and containers have been removed, a decision will be made whether to refloat the Napoli or cut her up where she lies - and that could be in a year's time.