It's been nearly two years since crews began clearing a massive shipwreck from St. Simons Sound. Last week, the already dangerous cleanup operation got even more complex when what's left of the cargo ship caught fire. On the latest Georgia Today podcast, host Steve Fennessy and guest Larry Hobbs, a reporter with The Brunswick News, bring us the latest on the Golden Ray cleanup effort and how it could affect the state's coastal environment.

RELATED: Crews Assess Fire Damage To Capsized Ship Golden Ray


Steve Fennessy: Nearly two years ago, hundreds of maritime salvage experts launched a dangerous effort to clear a shipwreck from the waters of St. Simon's Sound. The Golden Ray cargo ship had been carrying more than 4,000 vehicles when it capsized on its way out to sea from the Port of Brunswick. It's been stuck there ever since, and tens of thousands of gallons of fuel remain on board. The already massive and massively complex recovery operation just got a lot more complicated. A few days ago, flames engulfed the wreckage as crews were dismantling parts of the vessel for removal. 

Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Jeremiah Winston: Obviously, there was a good lesson learned here on what can happen, and we certainly are going to be making changes for future cutting operations. 

Steve Fennessy: The wreck has captivated the attention of local residents, as well as activists on the lookout for environmental damage. Making regular visits to the Golden Ray salvaging operation has been Larry Hobbs, a reporter for The Brunswick News. He joins me now for an inside look at what exactly is going on at the shipwreck and what's next. This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. When we talked last fall, would anyone, including you, have imagined that we'd be coming in on June of 2021 and this thing is still there or at least half of it? 

Larry Hobbs: I'd love to tell you I'm surprised. There's not a reference point for this. Nobody around here has seen anything like it. It is a one-of-a-kind undertaking, especially given the confines of where they're doing this. The water currents that come in and out of there, two swift in-and-out tides a day, the closeness of the two islands right there, the fact that there's a shipping channel right there and just that this is so massive. 

Steve Fennessy: You've covered every twist and turn of this dramatic saga, I understand, since all of this occurred. It's tough for those of us who are not living down there or seeing it every day to visualize what's going on. Can you paint a picture for us? What is the scale of this cleanup? How many people are working to try to get rid of this thing? 

Larry Hobbs: It involves thousands of people from out of town. It involves the Unified Command. Unified Command oversees the salvage operation. It's the United States Coast Guard representing the federal, Georgia Department of Natural Resources representing the state, and the Gallagher Marine Systems, which is a private company specializing in these matters. There used to be 656 feet of half-submerged shipwreck between two resort islands that a lot of your listeners have probably visited — Jekyll Island to the south and St. Simons Island to the north. It's on a sandbar just off the shipping channel to the Port of Brunswick. And these things [cargo ships] come through that little channel between the two islands with regularity, going to the Port of Brunswick, dropping off and picking up vehicles by the thousands. 

Steve Fennessy: Larry, the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board held these hearings last fall exploring potential reasons for why this all happened. Have they issued a ruling yet? And if not, when can we expect that? 

Larry Hobbs: There's a probable cause. It's pretty definitive — and this is not official — it was top heavy, which essentially means its cargo, there was too much cargo above and there wasn't enough ballast below. There's a calculation for this, actually, that every ship's first mate on a ship like this on what they call a RO-RO for roll on, roll off vehicles, vehicles roll off in one port and roll on at another, has a handheld device that calculates the distribution of the cargo to make sure it's an — it's an even distribution. The first mate on the golden Ray said he got it right. At the hearings last October, the U.S. Coast Guard's naval architect from Washington, D.C., begged to differ. That it just it simply wasn't right; it was top heavy. 

Steve Fennessy: Is it possible that it could bring out a bunch of tugboats and move it out? 

Larry Hobbs: Trying to tow it out of there was — was quickly eliminated as an option. And they decided to take chains and use the chains to cut each piece of this ship, solid steel with 12 interior solid steel decks plus thousands of vehicles. Each link is 18 inches long, three inches around and weighs 80 pounds. 

Steve Fennessy: Each link? 

Larry Hobbs: Right. The plan is to cut this thing up into eight pieces. Four have been removed. They ran these chains underneath the sunken port side and draped them over the exposed starboard side. 

Steve Fennessy: They're basically moving it back and forth and the friction on metal on metal is causing this to tear away? 

Larry Hobbs: It more accurately tears through the steel, shears through the steel than — and cuts it. And there are divers underneath making sure everything is connected. They can only work during slack tide because there's some very swift tides coming in and out of St. Simons Sound. 

News Tape GPB: Understanding the water and what happens to oil in it is crucial. This area has really big tidal changes, powerful currents, strong winds. Anything that ends up in the water can travel far, fast. 

Steve Fennessy: So the chains that are that are cutting the ship into eight pieces they're attached themselves to cranes. And this crane is — I've seen pictures, it's sort of draped over the entire carcass of that ship. Tell me a little bit more about that device. That thing is insane. 

Larry Hobbs: Are you talking about the VB-10,000? 

Steve Fennessy:  I'm talking about the VB-10,000, Larry. 

Larry Hobbs: Well, let's talk about the VB-10,000. H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds: I mean, that's the first thing I think of when I see this thing. It is, you know, that big mechanical monster that he envisioned. This thing is gargantuan, huge. It's a vessel. It's 255 feet tall, arching. To give that some scope, our Sidney Lanier Bridge, which is one of the tallest suspension bridges in the state, has a 186-foot clearance. The VB-10,000 could not clear that and get to the port here. What this thing does is it actually straddles the shipwreck and they attach a pulley on either side of this chain and just rip it up and down, up and down until it just starts working its way up through the shipwreck. I'm painting you a picture that — that we're not actually seeing because this has turned out to be a very slow process. 

News Tape WSB TV: The cutting continues on the fifth section of this boat. It's been going on for months and will continue through the summer — maybe well beyond that date after this fire tore through the remains of the hull last Friday. 

Larry Hobbs: When it's done cutting, it lifts the sections out of the water and places them on a barge before they ship these off to a recycling facility in Gibson, La., with the acronym of MARS: Modern American Recycling System. 

Steve Fennessy: When this salvaging, when the actual cutting operation began last fall, what was the expectation about how long it would take to actually cut this thing up into the eight pieces and haul it away on ships? 

Larry Hobbs: Optimistic, I think would be fair to say. They were estimating that each cut was going to take about 24 hours of continuous cutting. Then the ship sections were going to be lifted and hauled away and there was a week to 10 days for each, you know, maybe six weeks, two months?

Steve Fennessy: What did the reality bear out? 

Larry Hobbs: Well, the first cut began Nov. 6. The chain broke on Nov. 7. They had several chain breaks and some other setbacks, including the threat of the hurricane that passed last November. But they didn't complete that cut for three weeks until Nov. 28. That was the first cut. 

Steve Fennessy: Are some sections harder to cut through than others? 

Larry Hobbs: Most definitely. And by far the most difficult was the engine section. It was a section behind the stern. 

News Tape GPB: Mauricio Garrido is president of T&T Salvage, the company doing the cutting. 

Mauricio Garrido: It's a key component because I think that's the toughest section we have on our plate. 

News Tape GPB: The toughest, literally. It contains the engine room and lots of heavy steel. They've had to switch to a heavier cutting chain. It's also tough because they expect to sever a fuel line containing what oil remains on the ship. 

Larry Hobbs: They had to keep a deadline with the barge, that was the Julie B, which is supposed to be the longest barge in U.S. waters, coming up from Louisiana. When they realized what a tough time they were having with the engine section, they basically did a calculated retreat and they moved to the eastern end of the ship, which would be the fore action, and focused on cutting that with much more satisfactory results. 

Steve Fennessy: And so after that, they went back to the the engine cut that they sort of abandoned halfway through? 

Larry Hobbs:  Got the VB-10,000 cutting on it beginning April 13 and finally completed it on April the 24th. 

Steve Fennessy:  As we sit here today, how much of the ship remains? 

Larry Hobbs: About 300 feet. It doesn't even look like a ship anymore. I've referred to it as a scrap metal heap, but it's still a big, ugly piece of steel out there. 

Steve Fennessy: One of the things that occurs to me is we talk about fuel and then we talk about trying to — to cut a ship in pieces using metal on metal, creating friction and heat, I have to think that there — there is the potential there for an ignition. Is a fire a surprise for something like this? 

Larry Hobbs: They had said last summer to — to expect fires. 

Coast Guard Petty Officer Michael Himes: The potential for fires will remain as long as the wreck is out there. So we had a little bit of experience with it. Of course, a part of the removal process called for comprehensive fire suppression equipment. So it's an — it's an unfortunate circumstance of removing this ship. 

News Tape WTOC: They say they knew removing the ship would be a learning process and they were prepared for a fire. However, that preparation doesn't mean they can stop it from happening again.  

Larry Hobbs: There's also a fire hose on the VB-10,000, there is a sprinkler system that they have installed inside the ship, along these cutting lines. Now, this wasn't the chain that caused the really big fire. They had paused the chain. And they had these guys, rope access technicians. They were essentially rappelling down the hall, climbing into the cut groove with six-foot welding torches. They were trying to cut a way around a support beam that they suspected was going to give the cutting chain itself trouble, and they've had enough of these breaks that have to be replaced because of wear, they thought it was worth it to pause the chain and move these folks in there with these welding torches. One of them sparked a car. Now, this thing is wide open on either end facing east to west. We had a real strong wind coming in off the ocean Friday. And when that first car got sparked — this is up at the front end of the ship, up at the east end of the ship — the wind just blew. Any car that was above the waterline basically caught fire, according to Unified Command.

Steve Fennessy: Wow.

Larry Hobbs: And it was a mess. 

Steve Fennessy: And what did it look like? Did you see it? 

Larry Hobbs: It's billowing black smoke and then the flames came, and this all is taking place early Friday afternoon into the evening. 

News Tape WTOC: Coast Guard and emergency services spent most of Friday locating and containing the fire out in the St. Simon Sound. Crews working on and around the ship evacuated safely and no one was hurt. 

Steve Fennessy:  So what does this mean for the cuts that remain? To what degree is this salvaging operation delayed yet again? 

Larry Hobbs: They're trying to assess. But the damage that I've heard so far is not major. What it did to the structure of what remains of the ship is also an open question. They've got engineers out there right now to see: Can they continue with their plan to cut this in sections like they had planned? 

Steve Fennessy: Stay with us as we look at how crews are racing to remove more of the Golden Ray as hurricane season approaches and what all of this could mean for the environment. This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. 


Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today; I'm Steve Fennessy, I'm joined by Larry Hobbs from the Brunswick News. Larry, advocates have been sounding the alarm about potential damage from this Golden Ray cleanup to the fragile coastal ecosystem there. Here's what Susan Inman with Altamaha Riverkeeper told WSB TV. 

Sue Inman: There still are around 40,000 gallons of fuel on board, plus cars. So there is a steady leak of your old weathered fuel that is constantly moving in and out. 

Steve Fennessy: Is there an estimate now on when this thing will be gone? 

Larry Hobbs: I would love to give you one. They started out with some high hopes. And, you know, I'm getting emails from some people saying, “H-How, this is a travesty!” And I am like, “Let's hear your plan.” I mean, I don't know. I'm a small-town reporter, and this thing dumped right in my backyard and every day's a crash course. My dad was the engineer in the family. I-Im — it is really mind-boggling. 

Steve Fennessy:  Are there any estimates on how much this is going to cost? 

Larry Hobbs: $788 million and counting for the owner and its insurer, which is North of England, but it's now in a pool of maritime insurers. 

Steve Fennessy: And so what's left now? We have this, you know, half of the ship of the original length of the ship is there. And now there was a fire that sort of swept through it. What does it look like now? 

Larry Hobbs: Not much different, except that a lot of the paint is gone. It literally boiled the paint off of it, every — every car that remained in there, that was above the waterline. So half of that, a thousand at least, caught fire, kind of like lava. And then a lot of plastic pieces melted, disfigured, fell into the water. Massive amounts of this plastic is now washing up on our shore. Some of this stuff looks like — I don't know if kids do this anymore, but when I was a kid, you know, we'd take our, our toy plastic soldiers and melt them. It's burnt black and all these different kinds of shapes of things that they took when they hit the cool water after melting. 

News Tape WSB TV: We've covered the Golden Ray since it overturned off the coast of St. Simons Island. Crews have found, as you might imagine, pieces of plastic, even a car bumper. 

Larry Hobbs: Plastic bumpers, plastic fenders, license plates. A lot of plastic parts are turning up on the beaches. 

Steve Fennessy: We're coming up on June and that means hurricane season. What does that mean for the dismantling of what remains of the ship? 

Larry Hobbs: The military's involved in this. The Coast Guard, they don't do anything without a plan. I can tell you what it will be. It will be big. It will be complex. And it will be multilayered, just like every single facet of this operation has been from the start. 

Sue Inman: Timeline is not a thing that we really focus on anymore. 

News Tape News4Jax: Sue Inman is the local Riverkeeper. Even before the fire, her main concern was the potential pollution pouring from the site. How long will it take this area to recover? 

Sue Inman: It's hard to say. We may not know the impact of that for a few years.

Steve Fennessy: When this ship capsized, it had a whole mess of fuel. How much fuel remains on the ship and what happens when you've got this massive chain that's cutting presumably through fuel lines? 

Larry Hobbs: There's been some problems with that. And their best guesstimate was there was 380,000 gallons of fuel on the ship. And this doesn't include that every single one of the 4,200 vehicles on board had all of its vehicle fluids plus a few gallons of gas and oil. They did what they call a lightering process. Basically, they brought barges out there with big tanker barges and they pumped. During the, the last months of 2019, they pumped an estimated 327,000 gallons of fuel out of there. They have gone on the assumption that the balance is what remains in there, which is, you know, more than 40,000 gallons. There have been some big spills during these cuts, but they have a team of environmental cleanup people. One is on the water at all times. They have oil booms, which sort of corral — oil floats, lucikly — that sort of corral the fuel. 

News Tape News4Jax: Back near the ship, commanders point to a massive environmental barrier they've constructed to keep any debris and contaminants contained. Besides the work on site right here, Unified Command teams are walking the shorelines along the Georgia coast here trying to minimize the environmental impact. They say that is work that will continue even after this is all gone. 

Steve Fennessy: You think about oil spills in Alaska and how we see pictures of, you know, Arctic terns covered in oil, is there been anything like that here? 

Larry Hobbs: Now, there have been some birds found, not so much at this stage, but in earlier stages that were oiled. Some of these birds were dead but they're just found inside the, the perimeters of what they call the salvage site. And they can't tell, not all of these birds were oiled so it's not certain if, you know, if oil pollution has killed them. 

Steve Fennessy: Larry, this ship has been a fixture on the horizon there for the last almost 20 months now. Is there, I mean, is there a part of you or any part of the residents that you talk to that, they're almost going to be sad to see it go? 

Larry Hobbs: Well, there's coffee cups and T-shirts with the Golden Ray on it and I think some of the bars have come up with Golden Ray drinks, but everybody's ready to see this go. And I mean, these are people from up there in Atlanta, down in Gainesville, Fla., places like this, who've got relatives here and they come and stay and they're sort of marking their visits by the progress that's made on the Golden Ray. And this is going on like what? Going on 18 months now? It's been quite a journey. 

Steve Fennessy: I could see retired people setting up folding chairs just to watch this go. 

Larry Hobbs: And I do see them all out there. I've gotten to know a few of them. I know a lot of them anyway, we're a pretty close-knit community here. And yeah, there are Golden Ray groupies — how about that? — who are just fascinated with this process. And who can blame them? We've got to remember, though, what this is doing to a very pristine environment. So far, there's no signs that there's major damage. But we've got to keep that in the back of our minds to remember that this is very serious for a very, very important natural habitat here along the East Coast for, not just for us, but for the entire nation. This is a very precious place. But I mean, just looking over it, we saw a bald eagle, you see alligators, sea turtles, osprey, all these beautiful birds that I swear I'm going to learn the name of one time, maybe when I retire. But it's just it's a precious resource down here. You know, I just hope that holds. 

Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Larry Hobbs from the Brunswick News. Crews are still assessing the damage from last week's fire. Coast Guard officials say it's unclear how much longer it could take to finally remove what's left of the Golden Ray from St. Simon's Sound. For more Georgia Today, go to I'm Steve Fennessy. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Don't forget to leave us a rating and review on Apple. Jess Mador and Jahi Whitehead are Georgia Today’s producers. Our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.