Oil tanker fire off coast of China still blazing, 31 crew members missing

Oil tanker fire
Crews continue to battle an oil tanker fire located about 160 nautical miles off China’s coast. People’s Daily China Twitter photo.

Oil tanker fire began Saturday night

Rescue crews are struggling to control an oil tanker fire after the Suezmax tanker collided with a grain ship off the east coast of China on Saturday.  The remains of one crew member from the SANCHI tanker was found on Monday afternoon and the remaining 31 sailors are missing.

As the blaze rages, officials are concerned that the SANCHI may explode and sink.  As well, poor weather is hampering the rescue work, according to Lu Kang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry.

The tanker involved is a double-hulled crude oil tanker that was en route from Iran to South Korea.  The SANCHI was carrying a load of 136,000 tonnes of condensate, an ultra-light and highly volatile crude.

The collision occurred about 160 nautical miles off China’s coast, east of Shanghai and the mouth of the Yangtze River Delta in waters not frequently used by large vessels like tankers and dry-bulk carriers or container ships.

At this time, the size of the oil spill and the extent of the environmental damage are not known.

Condensate is extremely low in density, and is highly toxic and much more explosive than crude oil.  As a liquid, it is colourless and virtually odourless and surface spills are difficult to detect visually.

As well, when condensate is introduced to water, it evaporates quickly and can cause a large-scale explosion when it reacts with air and turns into a flammable gas.

The tanker is also carrying bunker fuel, which is extremely heavy and toxic when spilled, but much less explosive.

Chinese state media shows video of a number of boats attempting to douse the blaze with water as thick, black smoke billowed from the damaged tanker.

Four rescue ships and three cleaning boats have been dispatched by China to the scene.  South Korea also sent a ship and helicopter and a US Navy military aircraft searched the area for missing crew members.

The grain carrier CF Crystal was not significantly damaged in the collision and the 21 crew members, all Chinese nationals, were rescued.  The ship has been taken to the port of Luhuashan, south of Shanghai, as part of the investigation into the incident.

Traffic in and out of Shanghai or ports along the Yangtze River has not been impacted by the collision and fire.  Hanwha Total Petrochemical Co Ltd, recipient of the cargo, says it will use its stockpiles to replace the lost cargo.

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