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Coast Guard hearing begins probe of Golden Ray disaster

Black box on bridge of cargo ship records frantic moments as car carrier capsizes

Hearing meant to see what lessons can be learned, not fix responsibility, Coast Guard says

BRUNSWICK, Ga. – The U.S. Coast Guard, National Transportation Safety Board and other government investigators spent Monday in the conference room of the Marshes of Glynn Library on Monday beginning a weeklong public hearing to find out what caused a cargo ship to overturn just over a year ago in the St. Simons Sound.

Investigators are trying to find out why this happened, who’s responsible and how it can be prevented.

Among the evidence released was audio from the 656-foot Golden Ray cargo ship’s black box, which recorded 10 terrifying minutes of the vessel’s South Korean crew members trying to save it.

September 8, 2019, just after midnight, the Golden Ray car carrier tipped over in the waterways off Brunswick, all 23 crew members survived, but three were trapped in an engine room for a day and a half. An American river pilot escorting the vessel also survived. The ship was carrying 4,300 vehicles at the time. The vessel and cars are considered a total loss.

Coast Guard Capt. Blake Welborn is overseeing the hearing which is scheduled to last through next Tuesday. They are focusing on the condition of the ship before and after the accident, companies involved and and environmental concerns.

Welborn said investigators didn’t find any reason to believe the 2-year-old ship had anything wrong with it to cause it to list.

Capt. Bruce Fending of the Brunswick Bar Pilots Association said there weren’t issues in the channel or with the American pilot boat captain escorting the South Korean-owned ship to sea.

“There was not a navigational problem,” Fending testified.

The hearing ended around 2:30 p.m. due to a plethora of technical difficulties with the livestream, which enabled the public to watch the meeting. Only limited members were allowed in the room due to coronavirus concerns. Welborn said another witness misread the date on the subpoena and wasn’t available Monday.

The hearing continues Tuesday with an Army Corps of Engineers employee expected to testify.

Welborn said many witnesses are in New Orleans, so their testimony will be pushed back due to the threat of a hurricane there.

RELATED: One year later: Golden Ray cargo ship still lays in St. Simons Sound | Previous coverage of Golden Ray incident, rescue, removal

The ship is still in the sound a year later. In a few weeks, crews are planning to lift it up, cut it up and remove it from the water piece by piece.

Sue Inman, from the non-profit Alatamaha Riverkeepers, said it is and will continue to be an environmental concern. She added she hopes those responsible for this disaster are held accountable.

“While this important step, we’re just not closer to determining the damage that was done to the environment and the economy,” she said.

The Riverkeepers, who advocate for clean water, have been working hand in hand with the Coast Guard in monitoring the oil spills of the shipwreck and impacts of the nearly 30 miles of shoreline and estuaries.

“The fishermen are telling me now that the periwinkles aren’t there this year,” Inman said. “They’re just not seeing them, so that could be the beginning of the impacts we’re seeing.”

She said she has her concerns about the delays in the process.

“It’s hazardous cargo, and this is something that the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 was meant to protect the environment and our economy against,” Inman said.

That’s why she said she wants the National Resource Damage Assessment to start. Inman also hopes this will lead to better communication with the ports.

The Coast Guard said hearings like these are generally meant to determine what happened to prevent future issues and see what lessons can be learned and are not meant to determine civil or criminal responsibility.

The Coast Guard has established an email address for the public and interested parties to provide information, ask questions and make comments related to the ongoing investigation and scheduled hearing. Emails will be checked regularly, and all correspondence will be acknowledged. The email address is USCGGoldenRay@gmail.com.

Additional information about the hearing, including the schedule, fact sheets and biographies can be found here.

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Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.

Multi-media journalist with a special interest in Georgia issues.