Fire sparked during cutting operations on Golden Ray cargo ship

Massive fire on car carrier that capsized 19 months ago

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BRUNSWICK, Ga. – What remains of the Golden Ray, the massive ship that capsized in the St. Simons Sound in September 2019, caught fire at midday Friday and initially produced a massive amount of black smoke blowing toward Jekyll Island.

Live video from a Facebook page set up to monitor the dismantling of the ship showed flames and thick black smoke pouring from the ship at 1:45 p.m. About an hour later, most of the smoke being produced was white, which usually indicated there is less fuel for the fire. But at 3:45 p.m., large flames were seen again and copious, black smoke resumed spewing from the ship.

Shortly before 5:30 p.m., Coast Guard Commander Efren Lopez gave a news briefing and said the fire sparked during cutting operations that were happening on the ship. He said the fire broke out and spread among the vehicles on board the ship.

“All our firefighting efforts are continuing on and they’ll continue until the fire is completely out,” Lopez said.

RELATED: Timeline: The many problems since the Golden Ray capsized in 2019

Lopez said all nonessential personnel have been evacuated safely. He said no injuries were reported.

Additionally, Lopez said environmental concerns were “minimal,” and that the fires are on the top decks -- not at sea level. He said seawater was being used to suppress the fires as opposed to chemical extinguishers.

The Altamaha Riverkeeper conservation group said flames began shooting from the open ends and the top of the Golden Ray as she watched from their boat about 300 yards away. Several loud popping sounds could be heard from the shipwreck.

“It is ablaze. You can actually hear explosions,” Riverkeeper Sue Inman said. “It’s just so hot they can’t even get close to the boat.”

Frain, with St. Simons Response Liason Team, send this statement:

Preliminary information from the joint command, which led rescue and now coordinates salvage operations, said the fire broke out at midday, then blew up into a massive blaze about an hour later.

“Fortunately, the ship is open at both ends, so it’s possible that the fire could run its course rather than smolder,” said USCG spokesman Michael Himes. “We’re confident the fire itself is not a threat to the community.”

By nightfall, the fire appeared to have calmed down.

The 646-foot Golden Ray was carrying 4,200 vehicles in its cargo decks with it capsized, initially blocking the Port of Brunswick.

Responders last week said they started the fifth of seven total cuts of the removal process.

This not the first fire aboard the shipwreck, but certainly the largest.

The Altamaha Riverkeeper told News4Jax that there is a major concern about the contaminants from the fire getting into the river. A spokeswoman said there was a smaller fire in the morning that they thought was contained, then the major fire began.

View of Golden Ray fire from ground level. (Michael Torras)

“The Golden Ray has kind of worn out its welcome here,” said St. Simons Island native Andy Jones.

Jones provides snapshots of the removal process on his YouTube page, the Minorcan Mullet, during his daily rides to see the Golden Ray.

“Let people understand what it really takes and actually the sacrifices that have to be made by the community while something like this is going on,” said Jones.

Jones said those sacrifices are the pollution and debris. It’s a massive operation -- from the machinery and manpower.

“The process is taking a little bit longer than originally pitched. The community was sold on a 24-hour cut deal that they were going to get through it,” Jones said. “That is not the case at all.”

This September will mark two years since the ship overturned. The operations have been filled with delays. It has been a spectacle. Jones said it has even driven tourism.

“To me, the most amazing part is when the sections are lifted and placed onto the barges and moved away from the site,” said Jones. “Just to see that huge piece separated.”

With the ship open on both ends, Jones is hoping for rapid removal.

“The tidal influence going in and out of the ship twice a day, it has a big influence on the ecosystem here in this estuary,” he said.

The latest section of the ship left Brunswick earlier in the week to head to a recycling plant in Louisiana, meaning half of the ship has officially left the St. Simons Sound for good. Once it’s all gone, there will still be work that needs to be done.

About the Authors:

Brie Isom joined the News4JAX team in January 2021 after spending three years covering news in South Bend, Indiana.