What Happened At The Edge Of The World

See that tiny red speck? That's the welding torch.

My scorn for sleep has finally caught up with me.

I’ve lost track of the hour and I can no longer feel my legs.  I must now rely on a desperate dietary cushion of constant coffee consumption in the face of complete exhaustion.  Total system shutdown is imminent. 

As I type these words, I’m sitting in the deserted ballroom of a four-star hotel at the end of Alaska’s Aleutian Chain.  The room is a confused mess filled with folding tables, magnetic dry-erase boards, slumbering laptops with power cables affixed to the carpet by the shiny scars of duct tape and Post-it notes large enough for a condemned man to Sharpie his final confession upon.  My job and reason for being here: information officer for a massive maritime shipping accident — the grounding of the Selendang Ayu.

Here are the facts compiled from available press releases: “The M/V Selendang Ayu was a Malaysian cargo ship carrying soybeans from Seattle, Washington to China when it ran aground off the western coast of Unalaska Island in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands on December 8, 2004, resulting in a large oil spill.

Two HH-60J Jayhawk helicopters from the U.S. Coast Guard were involved in evacuating 18 of the ship’s crewmembers, 9 to the Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley.  During attempts to save the last 8 crewmembers, Coast Guard CGNR 6020, an HH-60J from Air Station Kodiak, was engulfed by a rogue wave that broke over the bow of the ship.  When the engines flamed out from ingesting sea water, the Jayhawk crashed into the sea…”

I would have the opportunity to speak to the members of the downed helicopter, who said the inside of the helicopter was a “pandemonium of rushing water, alarm horns and flashing lights as the Jayhawk rolled over and began to sink.”  The three Coast Guard crewmen, wearing buoyant survival suits, floated to the surface, where the Dolphin picked them up.  Six men from the Selendang Ayu weren’t as lucky.  The seventh was pulled from the churning sea, and he was close to death, suffering from hypothermia and injuries sustained in the crash.  By the time he reached the Dutch Harbor Clinic, his body temperature had fallen to a dangerously low 78°F, but he did survive.

Later that night, the HH-65B returned to rescue the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer and ship’s master from the Selendang Ayu, which had broken in half during their absence.  The rescue swimmer who remained with the master told me it was “the most intimidating feeling to be standing on the deck of a ship that was tearing apart beneath his feet.”  This aircraft, CGNR 6513’s crew would all be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for their actions.  The Coast Guard searched for the remaining crew until their efforts were suspended on December 10.

The ship had been carrying a significant amount of fuel, so there were fears that the Selendang Ayu could create the worst Alaskan oil spill since the Exxon Valdez.  One tank containing 40,131 gallons of fuel ruptured when the ship broke apart.  It is estimated that 424,000 gallons of heavy bunker C fuel oil and 18,000 gallons of diesel fuel was on board when it grounded.  Ultimately, 350,000 gallons of bunker oil and diesel spilled, which is about 2.9% of the volume of crude oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez.  The crew had transferred the fuel internal tanks when the ship foundered, and heaters were turned off so that the fuel would thicken in the cold waters.  However, environmental officials estimate that up to 1.28 million liters of thick fuel oil (338,000 US gallons) leaked from the freighter…

Flash forward two weeks: I’m staying in a room down the hall.  Government rates apply, and there’s fresh salmon and halibut for dinner with lobster and crab on Tuesday and Thursday nights.  But the mood is not a festive one.  Members of this Joint Information Command work long days, akin to pushing back the tide in lengthy shifts with a corn broom.  I spend much of my time shackled to a folding card table in the corner of the ballroom, herding the local media from event to event and crafting polished press releases.  I’ve had to “vote” two members of the media off the island.  One of them was a Greenpeace activist.  The other, an Anchorage reporter who couldn’t get his facts straight, spent his various interview opportunities looking for “the dirt ” on both the rescue and salvage operations.  

When I’m not giving accredited members of the press the Roman Thumbs Down, I’m sifting through stacks of poorly labeled CDs and thumb drives full of images from the field, harvesting what I deem worthy.  As a rule, the images will require a minimum of cropping and the crafting of a proper cutline in order for the outside world to understand what happened here, and why, and what we plan to do to fix it.

The highlight of my day today, however, was the helicopter ride.  I went up in a little red bird with the CEOs of a local land ownership corporation to view some of the areas effected by the wrecked behemoth.

I strapped myself into the shotgun seat, watching the pilot run through his pre-flight checklist and readying my camera.  Before we took off, the pilot gave us a quick safety brief; what to do in the event of engine failure, bird strike or the impulsive actions of a jealous God.  The cockpit intercom system was accessible via the lip mike mounted to my headset and the rocker-switch under my right boot, which allowed me to listen in on the radio chatter from the control tower.  I was safe as houses, strapped in by a five-point harness and wearing a Mustang survival suit and an inflatable vest.

It’s not integral to this story, but you should know I’m the kind of guy who gets a strange thrill from safety briefs.  On my way to the island, I smiled and winked a dog-eared copy of the pre-flight brief from the manicured hands of the stewardess, a script which encompasses all of Boeing’s 737 class aircraft. Score!

I looked out through the bubble as we lifted off, watching the world fall away between the skinny legs of the landing struts.

White mountains stand guard.
Visibility: six miles,
winds: almost five knots.

As we circled the wreck, the pilot’s voice crackled in my ear.  “My wife described pictures of the wreck as being hauntingly beautiful.’”  I nodded my agreement, keeping in mind that six of the Selendang Ayu’s crew lost their lives during the rescue.  The hard truth of those deaths overshadowed everything we did during that response.  I’d also been present for the town hall meetings and heard firsthand the protests of angry subsistence fishermen who wanted to know “when the blankity-blank Coast Guard was gonna get this mess cleaned up because there was money being lost.” 

I returned my eye to the viewfinder and focused on my intended money shot; framing the twisted wreck in the polished passenger-side landing mirror mounted below and forward of the bubble dome at my feet.  The vibrations of the helicopter made this quite impossible so I rethought my plan, staring out at the wreckage before me.

The sea doesn’t take kindly to stationary objects — enormous sections of the deck plating have been violently ripped away from the hull like the top of a sardine can.  Several of the massive, hundred-pound hatch covers from the bulk cargo holds have since washed ashore on a nearby stretch of beach now covered in spilled soybeans.  In some places, the beans form a quagmire several feet deep.  It’s a surreal sight, to say the least.  Try to picture billions and billions of butterscotch jelly beans covering the shores of a rough and ragged Alaskan beach.  That vision in your head probably won’t come anywhere close.

Last night, I ate my fancy fish dinner with the salvage crew, listening in awe to their wild tales.  They’re an awesome breed; rip-roaring old salts who hail from England, the Netherlands, South Africa, and Singapore.  Want to know the difference between a fairy tale and a sea story?  A fairy tale starts out, “Once upon a time.”  A sea story starts out with, “This is a no-shitter.”  The crew give the impression as being free-wheeling, devil-may-care types who don’t take life too seriously.  They work hard, play hard and live like kings in a land just beyond the borders of conventional life.

According to their accounts, the stench of the soybeans on board is overwhelming.  They’ve begun to decompose in the harsh conditions, creating a gas that pushes upwards on the remaining hatch covers.  Furthermore, the created gas has replaced the oxygen in many spaces, making them unsafe.  They will have to be vented.

The good news is that, because they’re organic, they’re not part of the cleanup process.  In time, they will biodegrade.  There’s no danger of them germinating in this inhospitable environment and causing further problems in the local ecosystem.  According to notes I gathered earlier today from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, the weight of the soybeans is crushing the invertebrates caught beneath the mountain of beans.  After fighting their way to the top, small creatures are gobbled up by the mob of hungry seagulls circling the immediate area.  None of the animals are capable of eating the soybeans, since their digestive systems are unable to draw nutrients from the beans.

Back in the helicopter now:  While circling the wreck, we could see the bright red flashes of wielding torches.  The salvage crews were cutting into the deck on the port side as part of the time-consuming process of ‘lightering’.  Openings must be cut through the surface deck plates to access a three-foot void, one which is necessary to keep the surface plates from being exposed to the heat from the coils in the bottom of the fuel tanks which keeps the fuel from freezing.  Then, work begins on the second layer. This process is called ‘hot tapping’, and requires an extremely slow-boring drill to create four holes in a tight square, which further allows the crews to cut an opening large enough for a man to crawl inside.  After the first tank of marine diesel is emptied, the tank has to be cleaned since the void is considered harmful to human life.

There’s a great deal of sludge at the bottom of the tanks, congealed among the heater coils.  The fuel will have to be mixed with sea water to get it to flow.  It’s like forcing high-pressure water into the bottom of a tube of toothpaste to get at those last dollops onto your brush.  It’s messier than shit, but it works.  From there, the fuel is pumped into a waiting 7-foot reinforced steel CONEX cube complete with eyelets, which allow a heavy-lift Chinook helicopter to hoist the cube via sling and transport it to a staging area on the island.  Empty cubes arrive, full cubes leave.  Work is slow on some days, and fast on others.

As we flew over another desolate stretch of shore, crews from the Department of Fish and Wildlife combed the beaches of oil contaminated areas in search of dead birds, dead otters, pieces of birds, etc.  Present body count: 401 birds, 5 otters.  That number will probably continue to grow.

There are other jobs, equally unpleasant.  Fighting local currents and weather conditions, work skiffs are piloted ashore carrying the work crews who’ll spend countless hours shoveling oil-soaked gravel, plant life and sand into heavy-duty garbage bags while dressed head to toe in chemical resistant suits, disposable rubber boots and bright blue gloves.  Filthy, time-consuming and back-breaking work.

We landed on a site the operations cell labeled SKN14 just as the shore crews stopped for a water break.  While they were lounging on the rocky beach enjoying the afternoon sun, I snapped a picture of an strangely alluring older woman.  She had a weathered, craggy face with glittering eyes and a broad smile.  She joked easily with me while reclining on that oil-soaked beach beneath perfect blue skies somewhere at the Edge of the World, dressed in her filthy yellow Devo suit, her hands grimy with oil despite the protective gloves.  She was pleasant company and made me promise to email her a copy of the picture, which I did.

On the way back to Dutch Harbor, the pilot flew slow and low over a stretch of volcanic black sand. We were twenty feet off the ground and moving forward at a crawl, the rotor wash churning up the sand and tide below.  Ten minutes later, we were at the top of Volcano Bay and circling the mouth of the volcano, and I saw the steam billowing out like products from a cloud factory.  There was a band of bright green visible near the mouth, remnants of the sulfur deposits in the snow.  And as with many of the countries I’ve visited, I could see that point along the horizon, the place where the earth begins to curve.  The sky was a deep, soothing blue, and the sun shone down on pristine mountain tops no human foot has ever touched.  There were mile-wide basins carved in the rock, residue from the slow-moving glaciers which carved these mountains back in the Ice Age.  I realized the towering structures we were slow dancing with were merely the worn stumps of far greater monuments to our brevity, standing silent guard in this part of the globe for longer than I could comprehend, and would continue to do so no matter what events shaped the outcome of the rest of the world.

The pilot informed us we’d reached ‘bingo fuel’, the point at which we had to turn back in order to safely reach the base.  Upon our approach, we crawled slowly forward at a graceful five knots, descending slowly from the heavens like a rock god being lowered to the stage on his comeback tour.

Back at the office, I discovered I’d snapped 217 photos.  And like these words, not one of them really captured what I’d seen.

Not so much ‘going to sleep’ as ‘passing out’,


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