Grounded for more than two months, a U.S. Navy minesweeper is being surgically dismantled and lifted off a coral reef in the Philippines, officials said.
It is the closing chapter for the $277 million USS Guardian, which ran aground Jan. 17 on the environmentally sensitive Tubbataha Reef.
Navy officials initially tried to free the vessel, but soon decided that the only option was to decommission it, cut it apart, and remove it in sections.
The complex and delicate salvage operation—on a World Heritage Site located 80 miles from the nearest port—is now in its final stages. The bow section and Auxiliary Machinery Room were successfully removed last week, the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park reported.
Operations, which have been suspended several times due to storms, are expected to continue into April.
U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Anderson Bomjardim
USS Guardian has been stranded on an environmentally sensitive coral reef for over two months. The Philippines may fine the U.S. for environmental damage.
The Naval Sea System Command's (NAVSEA) Supervisor of Salvage and Diving (SUPSALV) is working to dismantle the USS Guardian from the reef, the Navy said in a press release last week.
SUPSALV is part of a command task unit that performs salvage operations and is providing salvage expertise and equipment, with assistance from NAVSEA engineering experts.
"SUPSALV personnel have a long history of executing successful salvage operations and are once again demonstrating their expertise in this challenging environment," said Michael Dean, SUPSALV deputy director of Ocean Engineering.
"The support our ship design community and their planning yard experts have provided has been brilliant and enabled the operation to continue to move ahead, despite weather setbacks and a continually deteriorating hull structure," Dean said.
No Injuries, No Leaks
None of the 79 crew members aboard was injured, and no fuel seeped into the reef, the Navy said.
The ship's wood and fiberglass hull was punctured in the accident, allowing water to flood parts of the ship.
Shortly after the grounding, the Navy contracted a Malaysian tug to transfer the 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel on board, and the Navy removed hazardous and other materials that might damage the reef, including 671 gallons of lubricating oil and paints and solvents.
SUPSALV performed the initial salvage assessment and oversaw the removal of fuel and other materials.
'Extremely Challenging' Operation
Two heavy lift cranes are being used to dismantle the ship. The primary salvage platform is JASCON 25, a pipe-laying construction vessel. Able to position itself within 40 meters of the Guardian, the vessel's crane operates without the need to set anchors, preventing further damage to the reef.
The second crane, Smit Borneo, arrived on site in February and supports the loading of salvaged sections onto an ocean-going barge.
"Preparing this ship for this sectioning has been extremely challenging. We have had to painstakingly clear about a two-foot path inside the ship, removing everything that is in our way," Capt. Mark Matthews, supervisor of salvage and diving, wrote in a Navy blog post.
U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kelby Sanders
The Navy contracted crane vessel JASCON 25 to remove the bow of the minesweeper. JASCON 25 can operate without setting anchors, avoiding further damage to the reef.
Matthews said that Navy divers and salvage contractors were cutting the hull manually with chainsaws and reciprocating saws.
Each hull section weighs about 250 tons.
"The removal of Guardian from the reef requires thorough planning, and operating in an environment 80 miles from the nearest port presents many challenges," said Matthews.
"The environment on board Guardian requires constant vigilance. We brief safety every morning, are cognizant of the risks involved with working in severely damaged ship spaces, and strive to minimize injury to personnel at all times," said Matthews.
'End of an Era'
The Navy held a decommissioning ceremony March 6 at Naval Base Sasebo, Japan, concluding 23 years of service by the USS Guardian.
The ship's crewmembers participated in the event, which was held to "signify the end of an era and to honor the legacy that Guardian has left behind."
"The memories that we shared together on Guardian are ones that I will always hold dear as I remember this fine crew and what we were able to accomplish together," said Lt. Cmdr. Mark Rice, commanding officer for the ship.
Originally commissioned in 1989, the ship had played a role in several real-world mine neutralizations and search-and-rescue missions in the Arabian Gulf, as well as participating in bi-lateral exercises with the navies of Japan and the Republic of Korea since becoming a forward-deployed Naval asset in 1996.
The USS Guardian's awards include a Navy Unit Commendation, two Meritorious Unit Commendations, a Combat Action Ribbon, the Southwest Asia Service Medal, and six Battle Efficiency awards.
U.S. Navy / Bomjardim
The ship is being dismantled section by section, with large hull sections weighing 250 tons each. The 23-year-old ship was decommissioned in a ceremony March 6.
Protest, Possible FInes
As Philippine officials looked into potential fines against the U.S., the incident sparked protests at the U.S. Embassy in Manila.
A Navy investigation is ongoing, but a preliminary review found that the digital chart the crew was using inaccurately listed the reef's location by eight miles.
The Navy has apologized for the incident.
"As a protector of the sea and a sailor myself, I greatly regret any damage this incident has caused the Tubbataha Reef," said Vice Adm. Scott Swift, the U.S. 7th Fleet commander, said in a press release shortly after the accident.
"We know the significance of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and its importance as a World Heritage Site. Its protection is vital, and we take seriously our obligation to protect and preserve the maritime environment," Swift said.
The U.S. could be fined $300 per square meter of damaged reef, and the Guardian is estimated to have damaged about 4,000 square meters, CNN reported.
In addition, the vessel committed at least three legal violations, according to Grace Barber, an administrator with the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park. Ship operators did not obtain permission to enter the park, did not pay the entry fee, and obstructed work of park rangers, Barber said.
The Navy has pledged to clean up debris and try to restore as much of the reef as possible.