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Barnegat Light scallop boat aids hunt for survivors of explosion

Published in the Asbury Park Press 3/02/04
When Coast Guard air crews and commercial fishermen reached the spot where the chemical tanker Bow Mariner exploded and sank, they probed a dark sea cluttered with burnt debris and reeking of industrial alcohol and fuel oil.

Strobe lights flickered in the water, and the crew of the scallop boat Karen L, based at Barnegat Light, went from place to place, hoping to find survivors from the 27-man crew. The fishermen found only one body, apparently that of an explosion victim who had been blown off the ship, said Peter Dolan, captain of the Karen L.

"It was weird," Dolan said yesterday, as the Karen L off-loaded the shellfish it had harvested during an 11-day trip that ended as a rescue mission. "We could see blinking lights all around us, like the strobes you see on life jackets. Some of them were sinking. We didn't know if those were bodies."

Coast Guard officials yesterday ended the search for 18 missing crewmen from the Bow Mariner, which was carrying 3.5 million gallons of ethanol that exploded about 6 p.m. Saturday. The ship was about 50 miles east of Chincoteague, Va., en route from New York to Houston.

The Karen L was dredging for scallops in the area when the blast lit up the sea, said Dolan, 38, a Barnegat Light native who lives in Stafford.

"It was about 14 miles from us," he said. "It was a huge explosion. It was like it was right next to us. It looked like one of those scenes from World War II."

The Karen L headed at top speed for the burning ship, Dolan said. Overhead, Lt. Rodney Rios and other fliers from the Coast Guard air stations at Atlantic City International Airport and Elizabeth City, N.C., were criss-crossing the sky.

"The debris field was pretty large," Rios said. "There were life rafts, and life rings with strobes. Our first helicopter picked up one of the crew."

In all, there were two HH-60 Jayhawk helicopters from North Carolina, plus two HH-65 Dolphin helicopters from Atlantic City, he said.

Overhead at 1,500 feet, four-engine C-130 Hercules planes circled, scanning the sea with infrared sensors and directing the helicopter pilots to investigate anything survivors might be using to float, Rios said.

"The Coast Guard helicopters were shining their floodlights on stuff in the water, and we'd go to the spot and check it out," Dolan said. "We couldn't run around fast enough."

Two Coast Guard patrol boats and another scallop vessel, the Capt. Bucky from Cape May, likewise searched for survivors, he said.

Six men were found in a life raft by a helicopter crew. While mild sea conditions helped the search, powerful fumes from the ethanol spill made it hard for rescuers to keep going, Rios and Dolan said.

"We were just trying to cope with it. There were people out there, and we had to pick them up," Rios said.

Rios' onboard rescue swimmer, Zee Lee, jumped in to search and "when he came up he was pretty much covered in oil," Rios said.

Exhaustive search

Dolan and his crew -- Jamie Fisher, Glenn Howell, Ed Deller and Jim Lacy -- steamed around for about six hours, he said.

"They did an awesome job," Dolan said. "They were up on the bow for hours looking for people."

The experience was disturbing for the fishermen, said Dolan, a 19-year veteran of the industry who in 1987 rescued three young lobstermen who had survived a sinking in Block Canyon, 100 miles southeast of Long Island.

"You have to do it," he said. "You hope other people would do it for you."

Rios said the scallopers were a big help in the search, which involved about 60 people from the Coast Guard.

Lt. Chris Shaffer of Ocean City, Md., Emergency Services said the explosion came after a fire started on the ship's deck. The 570-foot tanker sank about 200 feet to the ocean bottom.

Two crewmen died at Mary-land hospitals and a third died aboard a fishing vessel that went to the scene, Coast Guard and hospital officials said.

The Singapore-flagged ship was a chemical tanker built in 1982 and managed by a Greek com-pany, which said the ship had a crew of 24 Filipinos and three Greek officers.
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