SAVANNAH, Ga. – When the giant cargo ship began to tip over off the Georgia coast, harbor pilot Jonathan Tennant found himself on his side, screaming orders in the darkness while flying debris that felt like gravel pelted him.
After much of the Golden Ray slipped into the sea, crew members feared they would perish if they stayed on the ship — but they also could die if they attempted perilous climbs and dangerous leaps to reach the ocean.
Their accounts are contained in interviews included among more than 1,700 pages of documents made public Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board. The Golden Ray, carrying more than 1,400 vehicles, overturned after leaving the Port of Brunswick along the Georgia coast on Sept. 8, 2019. Tennant and about two dozen crew members on board were rescued and survived.
The shipwreck “was like nothing I have ever experienced in 21 years here before with a car ship,” Tennant told investigators two days after the accident, according to the transcript of his interview.
The trouble began during a turn near St. Simons Island, when the ship began to list to one side. It happened so rapidly “that I was absolutely in disbelief,” Tennant said.
“And the ship — at some point in that turn, I realized that I didn’t have a ship anymore,” he added.
“You know, I instinctively am giving commands that a pilot would give, under crazy circumstances,” he said. “But at the exact moment I was doing that, I’m not sure that I had the context that the rudder and propeller are already out of the water. Because it’s like that. And all areas there’s darkness, and alarms. The only thing that worked on that ship after the capsizing were alarms.”
The documents released this week are not the final report into the cause of the wreck, which is still under investigation.
But at public hearings last year, experts testified that the way its cargo was being carried was a key factor. A U.S. Coast Guard analysis found that unstable loading had left its center of gravity too high, making the vessel susceptible to rolling over, an expert told officials during the hearings last year. Investigators from the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board will use evidence from the hearings to publish a report of their findings, with recommendations aimed at improving safety.
About one-third of the hulking ship still remains in the ocean after many months of hauling chunks of it onto barges and then carrying them to shore, but its full removal is finally nearing completion. This month, crews began cutting through steel to remove another large chunk of the vessel.
In the interview transcripts released Thursday, Tennant gives one of the most complete accounts of the wreck but also of the massive effort to rescue crew members, some of whom were trapped inside the wreckage for several hours.
Tennant, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, was praised by the Georgia Legislature and others for getting help to the ship and coordinating rescue efforts while still onboard.
At one point, the capsized Golden Ray was in danger of sliding from near the shore into the deep shipping channel — raising the specter that the entire crew could drown. But Tennant’s distress calls reached a tugboat that raced over and pushed the hull back into sand to keep it out of the deep water.
Eventually, Tennant was able to escape the wheelhouse of the overturned ship by sliding down a fire hose. He was then rescued by a member of the U.S. Coast Guard, describing it in his interview: “Some big dude just picked me up like a toy and set me on the deck.”