BRUNSWICK, Ga. – Late Wednesday afternoon, two cargo ships that had been held at the Port of Brunswick since a 656-foot transport ship capsized in St. Simons Sound early Sunday were allowed to sail out.
The port had been closed to commercial traffic since the M/V Golden Ray flipped on its side near the shipping channel.
A unified command -- comprised of officials from the U.S. Coast Guard, Georgia Department of Natural Resources and a representative for the ship's owner coordinating the removal and cleanup -- said they realize the economic impact of keeping the port closed and had agreed to try to allow limited traffic by Thursday.
News4Jax was told the two ships were allowed "monitored transit" to leave. Officials said they would evaluate how these passing vehicles affected the Golden Ray, data that will help them decide how to proceed.
Only ships carrying perishable goods that can't be rerouted have been allowed to enter the port since the incident. The Coast Guard said others are being diverted to nearby seaports such as Savannah and Charleston, South Carolina.
When commercial traffic does resume, it will be limited to one-way traffic for several weeks, perhaps even months, during an elaborate salvage operation.
"This is a complex case," Whit said on Tuesday. "There are real and significant impacts that this incident is causing. Potential environmental impact, economic impact."
Whit said leakage from the vessel has been limited so far and addressed with absorbent booms that soak up any fuel. There is no sign the ship's fuel cells are leaking.
But there are risks that additional pollutants could be released during the removal process.
"The vessel is on its side and it is not designed to be on its side," U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Norm Whit said. "We will have some pollution."
.@USCG crews have shifted focus to environmental protection and working w/salvage crews to remove the #GoldenRay. Currently no leaks from the vessel, only a light residual sheen. Protective measures were put in to place after the initial rescue. #HappeningNow pic.twitter.com/p7rHvWGXeb— USCGSoutheast (@USCGSoutheast) September 10, 2019
In addition to the massive ship itself, the transport vessel had 4,200 cars on board.
M/V Golden Ray is owned by Hyundai Glovis, a South Korea-based global hauler for many auto companies. That company, the agencies involved and salvage companies brought in must decide if the ship can be righted and sailed away or if it needs to be taken apart and floated off on barges.
"A car carrier like this has a very high center of gravity, so you want to do whatever you can to make it easy to rotate it and leaving the cars in and leaving the fuel in," marine expert Rod Sullivan said. "Might actually make it easier to upright it again."
Sullivan said there are a few options to remove the ship. One involves drilling pilings into the seabed from barges that will hold cranes to right the ship. Another is to bring in equipment to offload the cargo, drain the fuel and tear it apart.
A Brunswick-based bar pilot who was one of the 24 people rescued from the ship was cooperating with the investigation into what caused the ship to overturn. Bar pilots are used to guide freighters and other large ships through harbors as they are more familiar with local conditions and hazards than international ship captains.
"The pilot ... is as eager as anybody to learn all the factors that had anything to do with the cause of the incident. He's given a lengthy statement to the NTSB," said John Cameron, spokesman for the Brunswick Bar Pilots Association. "We are confident that those investigators from the Coast Guard and the NTSB will come to a conclusion, but they have a lot of information to get through."
Hyundai Glovis told News4Jax that it has yet to do an inventory of all the cars that are most likely lost. They were being shipped for a variety of owners, not just one company.