Member of Salvage Team Dies Aboard Drifting Ship off Aleutian Islands

A member of a salvage team looking at how to stabilize a listing ship in the Aleutian Islands died when he lost his footing, slid down the ship's deck and hit his head, the Coast Guard said Monday.

The four-member salvage team was getting ready to leave the Cougar Ace on Sunday when the naval architect slipped and was knocked unconscious. Efforts to revive him aboard the ship failed. He was immediately flown to a nearby Coast Guard cutter equipped with a surgeon and a clinic, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Sara Francis. However, he was declared dead about an hour later.

The four-member salvage team had just completed an internal survey of the ship when the accident occurred. They were preparing to disembark, said Charles Nalen, vice president of environmental safety quality assurance for Crowley Maritime, owner of Titan Salvage.

"For some reason we don't know, it is still under investigation from the Coast Guard, he slipped and fell. The ship is at quite a severe, a considerable angle. They were on the covered main deck and he slid down a considerable distance, somewhere in the range of 80 feet," Nalen said from company offices in Jacksonville, Fla.

The naval architect was from Seattle and one of the company's most experienced, Nalen said. His name was being withheld until relatives could be notified.

"We don't know what happened," Nalen said. "It is a tragedy."

The naval architect's job is to make an assessment of the structural condition of the ship and work with computer models to calculate stability, Nalen said. That person also runs computer models, in this case looking at the best way to transfer the ship's ballast water to correct the list, he said.

A replacement naval architect was headed to the ship, Nalen said.

Members of the salvage team were equipped with safety harnesses and clipped in two different ways onto a safety line as they moved along the deck. Nalen described the tilt of the deck as close to vertical.

"For some reason, he became disconnected from the safety line," he said.

Four additional salvagers were expected to fly from Anchorage to Adak, arriving Tuesday, Nalen said. They would join up with the other three and probably be aboard the ship Wednesday.

The 654-foot ship, owned by Tokyo-based Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, is loaded with nearly 5,000 cars. The vessel Monday continued to drift slowly east in relatively calm seas 140 miles south of Amlia Island in the Aleutians.

The salvage team determined Sunday that the cargo is still in place. The cars are chained and stacked 14 stories high in the ship. The engine room also is dry and in good condition, and the ship's fuel tanks do not appear to be leaking.

Company officials believe the ship rolled while the crew was adjusting the ballast tank, which regulates the ship's weight and balance. The problem occurred about 230 miles south of Adak Island. Since then, the ship has drifted into U.S. waters.

The ship's 23 crew members were hoisted to safety. The only injury was a broken ankle.