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Rescued Golden Ray crew member, harbor pilot recount harrowing ordeal

Engineer testifies about being trapped in capsized vessel; experienced harbor pilot says it happened in seconds

BRUNSWICK, Ga – Federal investigators wrapped up the first week of a public hearing into the Golden Ray disaster Friday with more testimony about the harrowing experience of being aboard the capsizing ship.

On the second day of hearings, a foreman who oversees dock workers said he saw no problems as hundreds of cars and trucks were loaded onto the cargo ship.

One of the crew members who was trapped inside the ship’s hull and the ship’s captain both testified Thursday through translators. Friday, the harbor pilot, who was also on the Golden Ray when it capsized, recounted his experience.

Engineer was trapped in hull

The ship’s first engineer, Junyong Kim, testified virtually from South Korea Thursday, saying he was satisfied with the condition of the engine. He also said everything was normal until the vessel started listing.

Kim was one of four crew members who became trapped inside the ship, and he was the last to be rescued -- after more than 36 hours.

All 23 crew members survived.

“We hope, please we are grounded. If not grounded, we are going to die. So we prayed to God to ground it,” Kim said in his virtual testimony.

Kim said he began the voyage optimistically because it was a new ship and everything was going perfectly.

Then he described what happened when the group found themselves trapped inside the ship’s hull.

“Water came from the emergency escape route, so I tried to think, ‘How can we escape from here?’ There was no way then. Then we tried waiting in the safe area so we tried to climb up to the other side of the engine control room,” said Kim.

That plan did not work. It was too hot. Kim was wearing a watch but said it was uncomfortable, so he took it off and wasn’t able to tell how long they were trapped.

The U.S. Coast Guard presented the recordings from the ship’s black box, which included the sounds of the terrified sailors shouting over the blaring alarms.

Kim said they decided it was safer to be near water inside the ship to stay cool. He doesn’t know how long, but eventually, the lights went out.

Captain answers questions

The ship’s captain, Gi Hak Lee, testified that there were never any issues with the ship’s stability. He answered questions focusing on the decision to open a water-tight door on the side of the ship’s hull.

“I ordered open the pilot door after sailing,” said Lee.

Lee testified he lowered the door as the Golden Ray passed under the Sidney Lanier Bridge to prepare for the harbor pilot’s departure. He said he felt weather conditions were good to open the door.

Harbor pilot’s ordeal

Harbor pilot Capt. Jonathan Tennant, who was praised for his decision to intentionally ground the Golden Ray, testified Friday. That decision has kept the shipwreck clear of oncoming traffic, and out of the main shipping channel -- allowing ships to come and go from the port of Brunswick.

The role of a harbor pilot is to steer ships in and out of harbors. They climb on board to take charge as ships come into port since they are experts in their local waterway.

Tennant, who has piloted more than 5,000 ships in his career, testified nothing was out of the ordinary leading up to the disaster. Everything was normal, there were no issues with the crew or ship, there were no communication problems, and they had favorable weather.

Despite his experience, Tennant had no idea what was about to unfold during the dark morning hours of Sept. 8, 2019.

The Golden Ray had just left the Georgia docks and was making its first hard turn to starboard in the St. Simons Sound when it started to topple.

As he started to make the turn, Tennant said, the ship immediately took off to starboard more than he’s ever experienced.

“She leaned into the turn a little bit and started to overrotate to starboard; therefore, I applied what’s known as counter rudder to reduce the rate of turn to starboard,” Tennant explained.

He said he knew it wasn’t enough counter rudder but still had no idea how quickly the situation would turn to disaster. He asked the captain what was going on and during that exchange, he lost control. He said he immediately radioed a nearby harbor pilot because he was worried about a collision.

As he was on the radio, the 20,000-ton Golden Ray capsized in seconds.

“I dropped the radio, held onto the gyro, the ship capsized, I tried to ease the rudder, still trying to drive the ship,” Tennant said.

Tennant clung to a large navigation compass to keep from falling and in those moments, it was as if time stood still.

“I experienced more of a slow-motion time where everything was happening very rapidly, but I was seeing it very slowly, kind of looking at life through a straw,” Tennant described.

As the ship toppled, Tennant said, he swung the rudder all the way to the port side to get the Golden Ray out of other ships' paths. He grounded the ship on a sandbar just as the rudder came out of the water -- what’s been hailed as a heroic feat.

But he knew he was against a time bomb as the tide was coming in and could dislodge the ship from the sandbar.

A tug sped out and pushed on the hull to keep it aground.

The next few hours were continued chaos, but ultimately, the 23 souls on board were saved.

The hearing on the Golden Ray disaster will continue through Sept. 30.

Separate from the investigation, a multiagency command has spent the past year making plans to carve the ship into eight giant chunks to be hauled away by barges.

Officials hope to begin the first cut sometime next month.


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