Oil tanker off China coast could burn for a month, official says

Iranian company says there is still hope of finding survivors among the 31 crew members

The oil tanker as it burned on January 9th. Photograph: Ministry of China/EPA

The oil tanker as it burned on January 9th. Photograph: Ministry of China/EPA


The stricken Iranian oil tanker in the East China Sea could burn for as long as one month, South Korea’s Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries said on Wednesday, as the blaze raged for a fourth day following a collision with a freight ship.

Dozens of rescue boats battled strong winds, high waves and poisonous fumes to comb a 900-square-nautical-mile (3,100-sq km) area for 31 missing sailors and tame the fire, amid growing concerns the ship may explode or sink.

“We believe flames would last for two weeks or a month considering previous cases of oil tank accidents,” said official Park Sung-dong.

“What we are concerned about at this moment is the bunker fuel, which could contaminate water if (the ship) sinks,” the ministry official said.

The tanker Sanchi, run by Iran’s top oil shipping operator, National Iranian Tanker Co, collided on Saturday with the CF Crystal, carrying grain from the United States, about 160 nautical miles (300 km) off China’s coast near Shanghai.

The Iranian company said there is still hope of finding survivors as 31 crew members remained missing and rescue efforts continued. “Since the vessel’s engine room is not directly affected by the fire and is about 14 meters (46ft) under water, there is still hope,” spokesman Mohsen Bahrami said late on Tuesday. “We are persistently working to put out the fire and rescue possible survivors.” The body of one of the 32 crew members has been recovered and taken to Shanghai for identification, Mr Bahrami said.

The Sanchi was carrying 136,000 tonnes of condensate, an ultra-light crude that is highly flammable and to South Korea, equivalent to about 1 million barrels and worth about $60 million (€50m).

The Chinese government said late on Tuesday it had not found a “large-scale” oil leak, and the condensate was burning off or evaporating so quickly it would leave little residue - less than 1 per cent - within five hours of a spill. That reduces the chances of a crude-style oil slick.

Still, condensate is highly volatile when exposed to air and water and concerns were growing the tanker could explode and sink. The ministry official said the authorities suspect the tanker caught fire as soon as it hit the freighter carrying grain.

Park said it’s unlikely the oil will spread to South Korea at the moment because the tanker has moved 100 kilometres (62 miles) to the southeast. –PA