Golden Ray ‘great feat’: Largest wreck removal in US history complete

Golden Ray shipwreck’s last giant chunk removed from water Monday

The operation to lift the final section of the Golden Ray wreck began on Saturday. (Copyright 2021 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

BRUNSWICK, Ga. – With the removal Monday of the final giant chunk of the overturned Golden Ray cargo ship, officials announced Tuesday that those involved in the process over the last two years had “accomplished a great feat.”

“We have completed the largest wreck removal in U.S. history,” said Cmdr. Efren Lopez with the U.S. Coast Guard.

He said the often complicated operation involved 3 million man hours in an extremely difficult and dangerous situation to remove the wreck that tipped over with 4,200 automobiles in its cargo decks.

Weighing 4,410 tons, the eighth and last section of the South Korean freighter Golden Ray left the wreck site off St. Simons Island on Monday after a crane lowered it onto a big barge outfitted with a special cradle to hold the wreckage.

“This is the end of the wreck removal phase,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Himes, a spokesman for the multiagency command in charge of the demolition.

But the salvage job isn’t over. Big pieces of the ship’s side and other debris were left behind after the ship’s center, the most damaged part of the vessel, was cut in two, Himes said. Those were the final two sections removed.

Crews have removed the final chunk of the Golden Ray more than two years after the cargo ship capsized in the St. Simons Sound.

Lopez also acknowledged Tuesday that response to the incident is not complete and said the Coast Guard would continue to support Georgia authorities as the process moves forward.

Cleanup of that debris and stray wreckage that fell from the other larger sections, including some cars, will take two weeks or longer, Himes said. Then crews will remove metal shipping containers and rock placed around the partly submerged wreck to stabilize it during demolition, as well as take down the giant mesh barrier installed around the site to contain debris.

That should all be finished before the end of the year, Himes said.

Meanwhile, the last two large sections taken from the wreck site must be broken down further before they can depart Georgia for a salvage yard in Louisiana. Himes said that likely won’t be done until early 2022.

The ship capsized onto its side on Sept. 9, 2019, shortly after departing the Port of Brunswick. All crew members were rescued safely, but salvage experts deemed the ship itself, measuring 656 feet long, was a complete loss.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board reported the combined losses totaled more than $204 million. The agency concluded an officer’s error in calculating the ship’s stability left its center of gravity too high, causing the vessel to capsize.

They settled on a plan to straddle the shipwreck with a towering crane and use a long anchor chain powered by winches and pulleys to slowly saw it into eight giant pieces for removal.

Demolition work began last Nov. 6 and was periodically interrupted by breaks in the chain, one big fire that engulfed the wreck after being sparked by cutting torches and leaking oil that fouled 2.5 miles of beach and marsh grasses.

Some conservationists have asked the multiagency command overseeing the demolition for a formal assessment to determine the extent of the ecological damage from oil spills and other pollutants that came from the wreck. No decision has been announced.

Incident Commander Chris Graff of Gallagher Marine Systems said at Tuesday’s news conference that crews recovered 8,000 pounds of ship-related debris from shores and marsh and 9,500 pounds of non-ship related trash.

“The beaches and the marshes are probably as clean as they have been in many years,” he said.

About the Authors:

A Jacksonville native and proud University of North Florida alum, Francine Frazier has been with News4Jax since 2014 after spending nine years at The Florida Times-Union.