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Coast Guard Evacuates Crew of Drifting Oil Rig

SEATTLE -- After raging seas and fierce winds settled down Saturday afternoon, the Coast Guard finally evacuated the crew of a traveling Shell Alaska oil rig that had started drifting near Kodiak, Alaska.

For the second straight day, the Coast Guard had battled to rescue 18 crew members of the drifting Kulluk oil rig after efforts to tow the rig and its broken-down tug had failed several times.

But by late Saturday, repeated deliveries of engine parts and technicians by Coast Guard chopper had helped bring the stalled tug's engines back to life. And a dampening of what had been 20- to 30-foot waves and a drop in the 30-knot winds allowed teams to stabilize the rolling rig, evacuate the crew and bring it under tow.

"Now that the crew is all evacuated, we will accelerate the speed of the tow and increase the margin between the vessels and landfall," said Shell Alaska spokesman Curtis Smith.

The Kulluk oil rig was headed south to Seattle on Thursday after its first drilling season in the U.S. Arctic. But a tow line between the rig and its 360-foot tug, the Aiviq, separated, leaving the Kulluk adrift. The tug was initially able to get a new tow line established but then lost power to all of its engines, leaving both vessels floating free as weather in the North Pacific worsened.

Shell sent out two more vessels, and the Coast Guard responded by sending the 282-foot Cutter Alex Haley to offer assistance. The Haley got both vessels under tow early Friday, but then the cutter reported that its line had separated, too. It tangled in one of the ship's propellers, and the cutter was forced to return to port for repairs.

The Coast Guard launched two more cutters, the Hickory and the Spar, and sent up an HC-130 to monitor the situation. Jayhawk choppers began ferrying supplies to the crippled tug.

When Shell's other vessels arrived, they, too, attempted a tow but also experienced failures.

"The weather on scene is testing the limits of our Coast Guard crews," Coast Guard Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo in Juneau, Alaska, said in a statement late Saturday.

The biggest fear was that of the safety of the crew of the Kulluk, which was pitching in the roiling seas, making any attempt to hoist people into waiting helicopters dangerous.

Coast Guard officials also feared a grounding of the tug, the rig or any of the assisting vessels could spill fuel into the fragile marine waters off Kodiak.

But a drop in the winds and quieting of the seas changed everything Saturday.

"The weather laid down, so we had a safe window," Smith said. "We used the opportunity to evacuate."

Mechanics also got the Aiviq's engines working again, and the calmer seas allowed the tug and a second Shell vessel to each get a tow line around the Kulluk. The two began pulling the rig farther from Kodiak.

"Given the events, we're going to evaluate and recalibrate the tow assemblies on these vessels before we continue the journey to Seattle," Smith said. "We're in no rush."

For good reason. The National Weather Service late Saturday called for another night of high winds and rough seas.

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