Shipwreck Blocks Mouth of the Mississippi River
NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, February 25, 2004 (ENS) - The wreckage of the offshore supply ship Lee III lies stuck at the bottom of the Southwest Pass at the mouth of the Mississippi River 50 miles south of New Orleans. Salvage crews are working to move the wreck that is blocking the only entrance to the river for large oceangoing vessels.
The 178 foot long Lee III sank Saturday after a collision with the container ship Zim Mexico III in dense fog. Five crewmen were lost. To date only three have been found, and only one body has been recovered.
The crewman recovered from the Lee III Monday has been identified as Lawrence Glass, 65, of Mobile, Alabama. The two other crewmen who were located in the vessel by divers Monday could not be removed from the Lee III due to dangerous currents.
The container ship reported damage but no injuries. U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Office New Orleans is investigating the cause of the incident.
"This kind of operation is extremely dangerous," the Coast Guard said. Crews on scene are encountering five knot river currents, high winds, rain and fog as they prepare the Lee III to be moved from the middle of the channel.
The Coast Guard has requested assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state of Louisiana to reduce the river current via the Old River Control Structure and divert water into the Atchafalaya Basin.
The sunken vessel's owner, Houston based Ocean Runner Inc., hired a salvage crew and divers from Bisso Marine to look for bodies aboard the partly submerged vessel and to remove the ship from the channel.
"The Coast Guard is working closely with the owners of the Lee III and Bisso Marine Company, Inc., the company that has the contract for recovery and salvage operations. This is an extremely challenging operation given the size of the vessel and high water levels on the Mississippi River," said Capt. Ron Branch, commanding officer of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office and Captain of the Port in New Orleans.
"Safety of the people on scene is paramount. Many people have been working around the clock putting this operation together," Branch said. "Every effort is being made to complete the recovery and salvage operations and reopen the river to maritime traffic in a timely and safe manner."
Gary LaGrange, Executive Director/CEO of the Port of New Orleans said the river closure has impacted both cargo and cruise ship operations for vessels calling the Port of New Orleans and the entire Mississippi River system.
The affected cargo includes consumer goods, raw materials used in manufacturing, petroleum products, and grain exports.
“A closure, such as the one we have today, impacts the nation’s economy. Sixty-two percent of America’s commerce is shipped on the Mississippi River. This alternate route to the Gulf of Mexico must be maintained,” said LaGrange.
“If this closure is prolonged, the negative impact would be widespread and devastating to the United States economy,” LaGrange said. “A delay of only a day or two will impact when cargo arrives at distribution centers. A prolonged closure could impact the price consumers pay for goods.”
Currently, there are 51 vessels waiting to transit northbound and 52 waiting to transit southbound through the pass, according to the Coast Guard. The vessels waiting are primarily bulk and container ships.
The majority of cruise ships affected by the closure have been able to arrange alternate port calls at Gulfport, Mississippi and Mobile, Alabama.
The Lee III, used to deliver people and supplies to offshore oil rigs, was heading to Port Fourchon, a major oil and gas port in south Louisiana, when it collided with the Zim Mexico III.
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