Alaska Freight Disaster Threatens Wildlife; Still Hope for Survivors

A major spill of dense, viscous fuel from a freighter that ran aground was menacing sensitive wildlife habitat in the Aleutian Islands (search), but finding the six crew members lost at sea remained a priority — despite their diminishing odds for survival.

Thousands of gallons of heavy bunker fuel and diesel spilled from a soybean freighter that was ripped clean in half off the shore of Unalaska Island (search). Near a wildlife refuge, the area is home to sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, tanner crabs, halibut and kelp beds.

But with resources scarce in the remote and harsh area 800 miles southwest of Anchorage, the search for the missing took precedence over the environmental threat.

"There are only so many boats and so many planes, and they have been directed to the search for life," Kurt Fredriksson, acting commissioner for the Department of Environmental Conservation (search), said Thursday.

Coast Guard rescue crews searched into the night, with officials saying they had not given up on finding someone alive. Estimates put survival in the 43-degree waters of the Bering Sea at about three hours.

The six crew members were plunged into the sea when a Coast Guard helicopter crashed at about 6:15 p.m. Wednesday while evacuating them from the freighter. Four others, including three Coast Guard personnel, were rescued from the water by a second helicopter that evening and were in good condition Thursday.

The Coast Guard said the cause of the crash was still unknown.

The 738-foot Selendang Ayu was cleaved neatly in two, both pieces grounded upright and parallel about 200 feet from the shore near Skan Bay on the western side of the island. Farther upshore lay the wreckage of the Coast Guard helicopter, its red fuselage blackened and barely recognizable.

The freighter belongs to Singapore-based IMC Group. IMC crew manager Loh C.W. Weng said the missing were Indian citizens Z.M. Vaz, age 46; Blaise M. Mascarenhas, 33; Narendra S. Yadav, 52; Durg V. Singh, 54; and Didlar Singh, 44. Carlos Flores Santiago, 45, is the missing crew member from the Philippines.

Rescuers battled rolling seas, 30-knot winds and the thin Alaska daylight. On Thursday evening, officials said boats would continue the search into the night.

"It's always challenging in the Alaska environment, but these aircraft crews are some of the best we've got," Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Darrell Wilson said.

Fredriksson said it was not known how much fuel had leaked, but called it a major spill that could take months to clean up, threatening sensitive wildlife habitats.

"You've got bunker oil streaming from a ship that's broken in half," he said. "We are in winter and in a very difficult Aleutian Island environment that will put everybody to the test."

The freighter was carrying 480,000 gallons of heavy bulk fuel and another 21,000 gallons of diesel fuel.

IMC has contracted a private spill response company, Fredriksson said. He said the rough seas could help break up some of the oil and disperse it to the open sea. "That may be a good thing, in terms of shoreline impact," he said.

DEC spokeswoman Lynda Giguere said conservation officials will be working with the Department of Fish and Game to determine potential threats to wildlife.

"The fuel we're dealing with is No. 6 fuel oil. It's a very dense, viscous oil and it's not easy to clean up," Giguere said. "This is particularly persistent. It's high viscosity and it tends to remain on the surface. It's not good stuff."