SEATTLE (AP) – A cargo crane accident this afternoon at Seattle’s Pier 46 sank a ship and filled Puget Sound’s Elliot Bay with over 300 floating cargo containers, disrupting shipping and other maritime traffic indefinitely and releasing toxic materials into Puget Sound. Air traffic into Seattle was briefly disrupted.
No injuries were reported, but it could be days or weeks before large vessel traffic resumes on Elliot Bay. Governor Jay Inslee declared the area a disaster zone.
Hanjin Shipping, which operates the terminal, reported that a structural support beam failed on the crane while offloading a container from the SC Tianjin, causing the approximately 100′ arm to tumble down onto the ship and then overboard. Still connected by the crane’s cable, the force pulled the remaining crane superstructure down on top of the vessel, pushing it below the waterline.
Mike Wicklund, the crane’s operator, scrambled to safety as the crane was tipping over and was visible shaken. “I heard a loud boom and saw the arm go. The crane vibrated like it was an earthquake and I ran for the ladder. As I was climbing down, the whole thing fell over and I was crawling sideways before I jumped down onto the pier. I can’t believe I got out alive.”
The SC Tianjin quickly took on water and sank in about ten minutes, causing its cargo containers to float away. The ship carried a crew of 15 and all safely scrambled off the boat before it sank. According to ship manifests, the SC Tianjin was carrying a mixture of industrial chemicals, consumer electronics and a wide variety of cargo from Asia.
The US Coast Guard has established an exclusion zone from Smith Cove to Alki Point for all vessels not a part of cleanup operations.
“There are hundreds of containers floating above and below the waterline, many with hazardous materials, and we do not want to add search and rescue due to a collision with one of them on top of an already complex and challenging cleanup operation,” said Captain Arthur Griffin, who is coordinating the cleanup efforts.
The initial response to the accident was slowed as disaster plans were focused on singular oil spills, not dozens. Multiple oil slicks and areas of discolored water were visible around several containers.
Local agencies are scrambling to find spill containment booms that could be linked together.
“Our goal is to get a boom across the entire bay to prevent oil from entering the shipping lanes, but we’re having some challenges with that at this time,” Captain Griffin said. When asked how long cleanup might take, Griffin responded that it depended on how fast the containers were removed from the water and the extent of contamination.
“This could be a few days or it could be weeks. We’re still assessing,” he said.
Cargo and private air traffic into Boeing Field, directly south of Seattle, flies over Elliot Bay and was disrupted as air space above the area was briefly closed as Coast Guard helicopters converged on the cleanup area to assist in container spotting.
“We’re using the helicopters to guide container recovery around submerged containers,” Captain Griffin said.
Container recovery will be a slow process until floating cranes can arrive on the scene. Angela Earls, Director of the Washington State Maritime Cooperative, which coordinates spill response in Puget Sound said, “Right now we’re hampered by only being able to use dockside cranes to pull these containers out of the water. Tugboats are being used to tow them dockside, and this disperses and mixes spilled material.”
Jill Martinez of the Puget Sound Partnership, a local environmental group, expressed concern about the long-term effects of the disaster. “Until we see the shipping manifests, we just don’t know what’s in the water, but it doesn’t look good now, and we’re expecting that the Elliot Bay area will require significant, long-term cleanup.”
As cleanup operations continued, people could be seen fishing from nearby piers. The Seattle Aquarium, which uses filtered water from Puget Sound for many of its displays, is closely monitoring the situation.
“We’re not quite sure what we’re going to do if the water quality drops,” said employee Jack Anderson. Looking out over the scene, he expressed concern about the endangered local whale population. “I hope that the resident Orca pods hear all the noise and stay away.”
The Port of Seattle is the nation’s 6th busiest port and an important shipping hub to Asia for the Pacific Northwest and beyond, and processes over 250,000 cargo containers a year.