Insiko crewman's remains sought in derelict tanker
By Karen Blakeman
Advertiser Staff Writer
A Coast Guard environmental contractor pumped water from the engine room of the derelict Insiko tanker yesterday, searching for the remains of a crewman believed to have died there during a fire at sea in March.
Removing the oil-contaminated water could take up to two weeks, said Lt. Commander George Butler, chief of port operations for the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office in Honolulu.
As the search at Honolulu Harbor continues, the Coast Guard has declared the ship "a flagless, stateless vessel," and the crew plans to ask an immigration judge not to send them home to China.
The dead crewman, Gi Hui Nian of the People's Republic of China, is thought to have burned to death March 13, when the tanker burst into flames. The crew reported he was last seen in the engine room, the focal point of the blaze.
The fire left the crew without navigation or communication equipment. The captain, 10 remaining crewmen and a dog aboard the Insiko, floated dead in the water, for 20 days. On April 2, the captain and sailors were rescued by the crew of a cruise ship and brought to Honolulu.
The captain and one sailor flew home to Taiwan shortly afterward.
The rest of the crew, all from the People's Republic of China, disappeared briefly into Honolulu's Chinatown area. After Immigration and Naturalization Service officials announced they intended to track them down, the sailors returned. All nine remain in federal custody.
David Gulick, an assistant district director for the INS in Honolulu, said yesterday the men have requested to stay in the United States. A tentative hearing on that request has been set for May 22.
While the crew played cat and mouse with federal authorities on O'ahu, the Insiko continued to drift across the Pacific, with Nian's body and the captain's dog still aboard. The Hawaiian Humane Society launched a search and rescue effort that reached near epic proportions but found little initial success.
On April 26, as the Insiko and its load of diesel fuel drifted to within 200 miles of Johnston Island and threatened to contaminate the protected area's shores and reefs, the Coast Guard stepped in.
A contract ship was launched, the tanker was found and the dog was rescued.
On Thursday, the ocean-going tug American Quest arrived in Honolulu Harbor with the tanker and the dog, a 2-year-old mixed terrier named Hokget, aka Forgea. The Coast Guard began working through international channels to determine how to dispose of the ship, its cargo of fuel, and Nian's body.
The Insiko was bearing an Indonesian flag, and the government of that country was contacted.
"Working through the U.S. State Department, we went to Indonesia," said Capt. Gilbert Kanazawa of the Coast Guard Marine Safety office.
"We found out it was not legally registered, so right now we consider it flagless and stateless," he said.
The vessel is owned by a company in Taiwan. Contact with the owners, who could be held responsible for the tow bill, has been less fruitful than the Coast Guard had hoped.
"They're not forthcoming," Kanazawa said.
Family members of the deceased crewman have made contact with the Coast Guard via a letter forwarded through Transmarine Navigation Corp., a company acting as agent for the ship and crew in Honolulu.
Skip Howard, marine manager at Transmarine, said the family has asked that the body be buried at sea with the Insiko, which the Coast Guard hopes to eventually sink in deep water after any remaining cargo is removed.
Howard said the Insiko was nearly empty of fuel when it caught fire.
The ship acted as a "floating gas station," servicing fishing vessels far out at sea, he said.
Had it not been for the fire, it would have found a port in which it could have purchased more fuel, and gone out again.
Transmarine was hired by another company that acts as agents to ships and crews in Taiwan, Howard said. They were not hired by Insiko's owner.
Coast Guard officials said the search for Nian's body will continue on Monday. Any remains found will be turned over to the medical examiner.
Kanazawa said agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation have been contacted in the case, but as a precautionary measure.
"We talk to them a lot, especially since 9-11," he said.
"This is a pretty bizarre case, and any assistance I can get is welcome."
And the dog? Humane Society officials say she passed a physical, got her vaccinations and will travel to Kaua'i early next week to begin 120 days in quarantine.
Advertiser staff writer Mike Gordon contributed to this report.