The Panamanian-flagged tanker Sanchi on fire after a collision with a cargo ship in the East China Sea
The Panamanian-flagged tanker Sanchi on fire after a collision with a cargo ship in the East China Sea

Dozens missing in ‘new Bermuda Triangle’

MYSTERY surrounds exactly what caused a ship to collide with a tanker carrying one million barrels of oil in the East China Sea in a region that has been described as the "new Bermuda Triangle".

The fate of 32 crew members is unknown after a tanker carrying enormous amounts of oil collided with a freight ship, sparking a huge fire engulfing the vessel and "spewing" cargo into the ocean.

The cause of the crash between Hong Kong's bulk freight ship the CF Crystal and The Sanchi in the East China Sea is unknown and there are fears the 136,000 tonnes of oil compromised in the crash could lead to an environmental disaster.

U.S. Navy aircraft scanned 3600 nautical miles surrounding the crash site, scanning for the missing mariners, but none were located.

 

The Sanchi was heading north, sailing from Iran to a port in South Korea when the collision occurred at about 8pm on January 6, 300km east of China's coast, off Shanghai with the bulk carrier the CF Crystal, which was carrying grain from the United States and heading south.

A major rescue effort is under way but thick clouds of smoke billowing out of Panamanian ship The Sanchi and bad weather including strong seas and winds are hampering efforts to assess the damage and search for the missing crew.

"In this day and age with anticollision systems, radar, with ship identification systems, two enormous ships like this should not collide," oceanography expert Dr Simon Boxall, of the University of Southampton, told ABC Radio.

"Particularly seeing as they weren't in a narrow channel, there wasn't restricted navigation, there was no excuse for this accident to occur."

A statement from the Ministry of Transport of the People’s Republic of China
A statement from the Ministry of Transport of the People’s Republic of China

Research on the most dangerous seas in the world carried out by German newspaper Die Welt last year found the South and East China Seas the worst, likening the area to the notorious Bermuda Triangle. At least 33 ships were lost in 2016 alone, the publication reported.

The intense danger in the region spells trouble for ships that are growing in size without any "salvage material worldwide that is suitable for such huge container ships".

"The main cause of accidents resulting in ship losses were poor maintenance of the ships or the overloading of, for example, passenger ferries. The increasing number of critical weather conditions with strong storms also played a role. Lack of security standards and the enforcement of rules remained the biggest problems, especially in Asia."

 

The fate of the crew is unknown but Chinese authorities say crew have been lost. It is unclear how many, but all missing were from The Sanchi tanker, which is still floating but has potential to sink.

"Trying to find out whether they're still alive and rescuing them has to be first priority above all else," Dr Boxall said.

"After that, then we start looking at the impact of what is potentially one of the top 10 spills worldwide ever."

The equivalent of one million barrels of condensate, a type of ultralight oil, worth $60 million, were aboard at the time of the accident. Authorities have confirmed there is an amount of oil in the sea but it is unknown how much has been contaminated. Thousands of tons are at risk of pouring into the sea.

"The main priority is finding the missing crew members of The Sanchi, but a big concern is the blaze and the oil aboard the ship," Al Jazeera's Rob McBride said.

"There have been reports of oil in the water. The East China Sea is shared by China, South Korea and also some of the southern islands of Japan. There will be a lot of concern in all of those countries about any developing slick and which direction it may be heading," he added.

A statement from Ministry of Transport of the People's Republic of China said "the accident caused the vessel Sanchi to (catch) fire on the whole vessel and the vessel was tilted to the right and the crew was lost. The bulk carrier CF Crystal was damaged without jeopardising the safety of the vessel, and 21 crew members were rescued safely."

"The Sanchi tanker is in a floating state and is still burning with oil on the sea surface. The search and rescue operations are under way."

A big international rescue and recovery mission is under way with four Chinese rescue ships and three cleaning ships sent to the site to assess the damage but the sea is so rough it could be days until the devastating fire is controlled.

The operation has been helped by coast guard from South Korea sending a vessel and aircraft in the international operation.

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