SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan -- The Navy minesweeper USS Guardian -- stuck on a protected reef off the coast of the Philippines for a week -- will most likely stay there up to two more weeks, Navy officials said Thursday.
Rear Adm. Tom Carney, Joint Group Unit Guardian commander, said two contracted heavy-lift ships from Singapore are scheduled to arrive next Wednesday or Thursday at the site near Palawan Island to begin removing the stranded ship. The work ultimately depends on conditions at sea and efforts to stabilize the vessel and lighten its load.
During a news conference with Philippine military representatives in Palawan, Carney acknowledged that the 224-foot Guardian has moved significantly in the surf on Tubbataha Reef, a World Heritage Site; had been badly damaged with several breaches in the hull, had taken on a “significant” amount of water and now lay 20-30 yards from the edge of the reef with a 10-degree list.
“[The Guardian] will have to be lifted off onto another ship or barge to leave the area,” Carney said. “Right now, the ship could not maneuver on its own and is not operational… The ship is too badly damaged [to be towed] unfortunately.”
The comments came a day after Navy officials announced a Military Sealift Command salvage ship, the USNS Salvor, and a Malaysian tug, Vos Apollo, were also on their way to aid the vessel.
The Vos Appollo began rigging lines to defuel the vessel Wednesday but was not able to due to sea conditions, Philippine military representatives told the news conference. The Salvor is scheduled to arrive Thursday evening with divers and salvage equipment. They will make repairs and work to stabilize the ship, Carney said.
For the past two days, Navy and contracted salvage divers have been fighting rough seas to assess the water inside the Guardian and damage, plug some of the holes, secure items onboard so they don’t go over the side, and ready items to be removed to lighten the ship’s weight, Carney said. He hoped they would be able to start pumping out the 15,000 gallons of fuel Thursday.
Once the lift ships from Singapore arrive, some of the heavy items will be off-loaded while Navy architects assess how much water is inside and devise a plan to get lift equipment under the ship. The Guardian will be lifted by crane and placed on a ship or barge.
Carney said it was a “complex” salavage operation and could take as long as two weeks.
“I want to express my deepest regret for the circumstances we are in right now,” Carney said. “We are absolutely committed to removing the ship from the reef as soon as possible. That is the focus of all of our efforts.”
No one was injured when the Avenger-class mine countermeasure ship ran aground around 2:25 a.m. on Jan. 17 while transiting the Sulu Sea after a port visit in Subic Bay.
The Guardian’s crew of 79 was removed the next day as a safety precaution. The crew and officers are being interviewed and charts studied as the investigation into the incident continues, Carney said.
Navy officials have indicated faulty digital navigation charts may have led to the grounding. Carney said conditions, visibility and other navigational aids were also being looked at.
In the meantime, environmental concerns are rising the longer the ship stays on the reef.
“If the weather deteriorates, we can expect more damage,” Park administrator Angelique Songco said. “Another week of this? Unfortunately, yes… It is really sad.”