Coast Guard captain details 'miracle' rescue of trapped crew members

Rescuers describe 'hellish' conditions inside: heat, darkness, deep water

During a conference Tuesday afternoon, the coast guard working to reopen the shipping channel by Thursday.

BRUNSWICK, Ga. – Four crew members trapped in the belly of an overturned cargo ship waited for nearly 36 hours in pitch darkness and oven-like heat, perched on pipes and railings above deep water before they were pulled to safety, coordinators of the rescues said Tuesday.

The South Korean sailors emerged Monday afternoon from a hole drilled through the steel-plated hull of the Golden Ray, which flipped onto its side along the Georgia coast. Three of them were found in the engine room after making tapping sounds all night to show they were alive, and to help rescuers figure out where they were inside the massive vessel. The fourth had to be rescued from a partially submerged control room, trapped behind blast-proof glass that had to be cut with a diamond-tipped tool.

"These guys were in the worst possible conditions you could imagine a human being to be in,'' said Tim Ferris, president of the salvage company Defiant Marine, which the U.S. Coast Guard called in to help plan and conduct the rescues. "They survived a ship's fire, a ship capsizing, landing on the side 90-degrees in an engine room, not knowing what the conditions were in pitch black darkness.''

The Coast Guard captain who led the team called the rescue "quite a miracle."

Petty Officer Shaw, among the first to arrive to a distress call described the site of a 656-foot vessel hauling ship on its side "a little bit surreal."

Using helicopters and boats, the Coast Guard and Glynn County Fire-Rescue used extension cords and fire hoses to pull out the first 20 crew members aboard before dawn Sunday as the ship was laying on its side in the St. Simons Sound.

"People made their way off through passageways that were no longer oriented the way they normally would be," Capt. John Reed said. "All of that being done at night to get the 20 off, to turn around when the fire happened and have to take a step back with regard to rescuing those last four. That was a challenge."

Rescuers began tapping on the outside of the ship with a hammer and listing for a response.

"No response at first, but after a couple of hours, we started hearing a tap back," Senior Chief Justin Irwin said. "It was just a sign of relief to know people were still in there, hanging on, knowing we were there, coming for them."

Rescue efforts enter second day

“We had done it early in the morning on Sunday to no avail," Reed said. "When I got word early Monday morning that they (the trapped crew) were tapping throughout the night, it really energized that team of the tactical rescuers.”

Coast Guard and marine salvage experts brought to the ship by helicopter rappelled down the hull on Monday morning.

Fearing a cutting torch might ignite fumes from fuel inside the ship, crews used drills to bore a hole just large enough to let some fresh air into the engine room and lower a radio, flashlights, food, water and electrolyte popsicles to the three men inside.

"The temperature in the engine room was hellish,'' Ferris said. "They were being cooked.''

Rescuers spent several hours drilling more than 40 holes side-by-side to cut away a section of the hull large enough to fit a ladder, Ferris said. Two of the men in the engine room had the strength to climb out on their own, he said. The third was weak from fatigue and was brought up on a stretcher.

Getting the final sailor out was a much more difficult challenge. He was trapped in a control room about 180 feet from the entry hole, requiring a 40-foot climb. The control room's door was underwater, Ferris said, trapping the man behind "blast-proof glass designed to withstand an explosion.''

After several unsuccessful attempts to free the man, the team finally used a handheld cutter with a diamond tip to make score marks in the glass and break it. Ferris said the sailor "came out with a spring in his step.'' 

"He knew a little English and he said 'daylight,' and we said, 'Yep. We’re going to get you home safely," Irwin said. "It’s absolutely amazing. It’s just the will to survive."

The Coast Guard posted a video showing responders clapping and cheering as the final man, wearing only shorts, climbed out of a hole in the hull and stood up.

"It was miraculous,'' Ferris said. "When they came out and had sunlight on their faces, it brought a tear to the eyes of a lot of tough guys. It was a rescue of a lifetime.''

"Best day of my 16-year career,'' Lt. Lloyd Heflin, who was coordinating the effort, wrote to an Associated Press reporter.

Hospitalized for observation

Rescuers describe the four crew members as in relatively good condition for having been in the M/V Golden Ray without light, food or water for a day and a half with temperatures reaching at least 140 degrees. All four spent Monday night at Southeast Georgia Health System's Brunswick hospital, but all were expected to make complete recoveries.

"The crew members are well, surprisingly well for the conditions they were in for close to 40 hours from Sunday morning to yesterday evening," Reed said. "It’s quite a miracle we were able to pull those four people out alive."

Reed said the focus now turns to getting the ship out of the water -- which could take weeks -- and addressing any impacts to the environment.

"I’m sure they are as elated as I am (about the rescue), but a number of those men and women are still involved in the long fight of the marine and environmental impacts of this incident."

The Coast Guard said there are currently no leaks from the vessel but there is a light residual sheen. Containment booms were put in place Sunday. 

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Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.