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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 24, 2005

Ship's removal from reef to begin

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Staff Writer


Recovery crews hope to rig hull patches and then pump water from a 145-foot ship grounded off the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as part of a recovery effort to begin this week before refloating the vessel and hauling it off the reef.

They hope to be able to tow the M/V Casitas back to Ho-nolulu for repair, but will scuttle the ship if damage is too severe.

The Casitas went aground on the northern reef of Pearl and Hermes Atoll on July 2 while conducting marine debris recovery efforts under contract with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Its crew was safely removed, as was most of its fuel. Fifty-five-gallon drums containing 1,850 gallons of gasoline on board must be recovered.

The Unified Command overseeing the recovery has approved a removal plan that it hopes will minimize damage to the island's reef.

The Unified Command is made up of the various agencies with an interest in the atoll's resources, along with the Coast Guard and the stricken ship's owners, Richard and Peter Kelly of Fishing Vessel Northwind Inc., a West Coast firm.

At other shipwreck sites, biologists have noted that certain aggressive seaweeds appear to take over when there is iron left in the water. As a result, the recovery aims to remove all traces of the Casitas.

A small fleet of ships is involved in the response, most from the contractor American Marine, which was contracted by the Casitas' owners to get the vessel off the reef.

The ships, which include the American Contender, American Quest and American Emerald, two large barges with equipment and a housing vessel, the Condor, were at Midway Atoll's harbor Friday, preparing for the recovery at Pearl and Hermes, which is roughly 90 miles to the east.

Teams will pull the gasoline drums off the ship this week, and remove marine debris that had been collected as part of the Casitas' mission. Then divers will assess the condition of the ship's bottom and prepare a plan to make temporary patches and pump water out of the hull.

A large barge will be anchored off the ship, with lines extending to the Casitas to steady the hull as it regains buoyancy. If things go as planned, the vessel will then be pulled off the reef.

If it can be safely towed to Ho-nolulu, the tow will be done by the American Quest. If not, it will be sunk at an approved disposal site, the Coast Guard said.

Pearl and Hermes, 1,000 miles northwest of O'ahu, is part of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve and part of the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

Besides its significant marine resources—it is the largest Hawaiian atoll—its sandbars are nesting sites for sea birds, egg-laying beaches for Hawaiian green sea turtles and pupping sites for Hawaiian monk seals.