Search Halted for 6 Missing Crew Members

The Coast Guard (search) suspended its search for six people lost for three days in the frigid Bering Sea after the crash of a rescue helicopter that had plucked them from a broken freighter.

Searchers covered 227 miles of coastline and 550 square miles of ocean before suspending the search Friday evening, said Rear Adm. James Olson, commander of the Coast Guard in Alaska.

"There is little hope that any survivor will be found," Olson said.

High wind hampered efforts Friday to stem an oil spill from the 738-foot Selendang Ayu (search). The spill is near a wildlife refuge, home to sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, tanner crabs, halibut and kelp beds.

Two Coast Guard cutters were standing by the broken freighter and another cutter with oil vacuuming equipment was heading to Unalaska Island, where the vessel ran aground Wednesday, said Petty Officer Amy Thomas. The vessel was expected to arrive Saturday.

Coast Guard officials said a 40-member response team was assembled in Dutch Harbor on the other side of the island in the Aleutian chain (search). Plans were to shuttle pollution technicians to the grounding site to begin the cleanup and get a handle on the extent of the spill, said Coast Guard spokesman Roger Wetherell.

"Their job will be to deploy boom across three main streams," Wetherell said. "Once the boom is deployed they'll assess the shoreline for pollution, injured or dead animals."

The cleanup operations, however, depended on a break in the weather and forecasts gave little hope of that happening Saturday or Sunday. Olson said 30-knot winds increased to 40 knots late Friday and the outlook was for 50-knot winds and gale warnings over the weekend.

The six crew members, five from India and one from the Philippines, were plunged into the sea when a rescue helicopter crashed 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.

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

Before the ship split, the carrier's 440,000 gallons of heavy bunker oil were transferred to inboard tanks and fuel heaters were turned off to thicken the fuel. Olson said the ship split over the No. 2 tank, which had a capacity of 140,000 gallons.

"If that tank was close to being full, and we think it was, that tank was what spilled," Olson said.

As of Friday night, northwest winds had pushed the oil north into Skan Bay several miles from the wreck. Unconfirmed reports indicated the oil had reached Makushin Bay about 10 miles away, Olson said. No oil was report south of the spill site.

In 1989, thousands of seabirds and other marine animals were killed and more than 1,200 miles of shoreline contaminated when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground in south-central Alaska's Prince William Sound, spilling almost 11 million gallons of crude oil.

The double-hull Selendang Ayu belongs to Singapore-based IMC Group, which has contracted a private spill response company. The soybean freighter was carrying 480,000 gallons of heavy bulk fuel and another 21,000 gallons of diesel fuel.

The vessel lost power in its main engine Tuesday. Tugs and Coast Guard cutters were unable to halt its drift onto a shoal where it broke apart the next day.

Unalaska Island is 800 miles southwest of Anchorage.