US Navy Ship Remains Stuck after Crashing into Reef near Okinawa

January 29th, 2015 - by admin

Frances Burns / United Press International & Erik Slavin / Stars and Stripes – 2015-01-29 00:23:23

US Navy Vessel Stuck on Coral Reef off Okinawa
Frances Burns / United Press International

YOKOHAMA, Japan (January 23, 2015) — A US Navy container ship remained stuck on a coral reef near Okinawa for a second day Friday. A total of 131 people, including 38 civilian crewmembers, 26 Marines and 67 soldiers, were still on board the USNS Sgt. Matej Kocak, officials said, with another ship on the scene if they need to be evacuated. The vessel was leaking but the amount of water coming in is “manageable,” Lt. Charles Banks, a spokesman for the 7th Fleet, said.

The 821-foot vessel struck a reef or outcropping Thursday 6 miles off the coast of Okinawa. High tide that night did not free it.

Banks said experts were headed to the area to determine what must be done to get the ship off the reef. In one case in 2013 the USS Guardian had to be taken apart to remove it from a reef in the Philippines. Banks said the divers had not discovered yet if any live coral was damaged when the ship struck.

“The safety of the civilian crew members and the environment are our top priorities. So we’re taking this situation very seriously and will continue to investigate the situation until it’s resolved,” Cmdr. William Marks said Thursday.

Crews Search for Ways to Free
Grounded Military Sealift Command Ship

Erik Slavin / Stars and Stripes

YOKOHAMA, Japan (January 23, 2015) — The USNS Sgt. Matej Kocak remained grounded for a second day Friday in waters near Okinawa, as divers and other personnel determine the best way to free the stranded cargo ship. Preliminary reports indicate the ship sustained some hull damage, though the extent is still being evaluated, Navy 7th Fleet spokesman Lt. Charles Banks said.

A “manageable” level of water is leaking into the ship, Banks said. Kocak’s 131 crewmembers remain onboard, although a landing craft utility ship remains on scene if evacuation is needed. The crew of the ship, which is operated by the Military Sealift Command, includes 38 civilians, 26 Marines and 67 soldiers.

High tide Thursday night did not refloat Kocak naturally, Banks said, so planners must find another way to remove the ship. Military experts on groundings were headed Friday to the scene, about six miles from the Uruma coastline, and divers were assessing the situation, officials said. Tugboats were keeping the ship stable. “We cannot make attempt to float the vessel with tugs before the assessment is completed,” Banks said.

Floating a grounded ship depends on many factors and can be as simple as towing the ship off a ledge; or, as in the extreme case of the USS Guardian in 2013 when it struck a coral reef in the Philippines, it can mean systematically dismantling a ship at sea.

It was unclear Friday afternoon if the 821-foot ship was transiting in shallow waters, or if it was moving within generally deep waters and struck an outcropping. It was also unknown if any live coral was affected, and there were no reports of fuel leaking into the water, Banks added.

Okinawa, an island of about 1.4 million people, is home to the bulk of US forces in Japan and considered strategically valuable because of its proximity to several potential flashpoints in the Asia-Pacific region. The island is also economically dependent on drawing tourists, many of whom come to explore its warm-water reefs.

Servicemembers Debark Grounded Cargo Ship off Okinawa Coast
Erik Slavin / Stars and Stripes

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan (January 26, 2015) — Dozens of servicemembers have debarked the USNS Sgt. Matej Kocak, which remained grounded Monday on a reef about six miles east of Okinawa, military officials said.

Of the 131 people who were aboard when the Kocak ran aground at 11:30 a.m. Friday, 47 soldiers and 18 Marines have since transported by a landing craft ship to their shore-based commands, Commander Naval Forces Japan spokesman Cmdr. Ron Flanders said.

Maritime prepositioning ships like Kocak can carry up to a brigade’s worth of gear. The soldiers and Marines aboard the civilian-crewed ship were maintaining the gear while headed to military exercises, officials said.

The 821-foot cargo ship remains stuck on a reef just outside of a deep-water shipping channel, where the open ocean is separated from Nakagusuku Bay, also known as Buckner Bay. How the cargo ship ended up outside of the channel remains under investigation, Flanders said.

The ship sustained some damage during the incident and has been taking on a low level of water, but officials say it is not a threat to the ship or its remaining crew.

“The ship remains stable, and there is no danger of flooding,” Flanders said.

Tugboats connected to Kocak are keeping the ship from jostling too much over the reef and rocks, officials said.

Meanwhile, a team from the Navy’s Supervisor of Diving and Salvage and another from the Military Sealift Command, which owns Kocak, are trying to determine the best way to get the ship off the reef.

Complicating the effort is the presence of live coral reef in the area. It remained unclear Monday if significant environmental damage occurred when the ship ran aground, Flanders said.

Crew safety and environmental protection will be primary factors in determining how to extricate the ship, Flanders added.

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