Trapped Seafarers Unlikely To Live

Nine crew members of an oil-product tanker have little chance of survival after their ship collided with a bulk carrier and caught fire in the Straits of Malacca three days ago, a Malaysian rescue official said.

They might have been trapped in the cabin or engine room of the Formosaproduct Brick after the incident on Aug. 18, said Tan Kok Kwee, a director at the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency who is heading the rescue operation. Sixteen crew members were rescued and the fire was extinguished yesterday.

“The chances are not very good,” Tan said by telephone. “The fire, smoke, heat and the lack of oxygen would kill” them, he said.

The incident highlights the risk that ships face when sailing through the increasingly crowded strait between Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, where more than 90,000 vessels pass through every year. About 33 percent of global seaborne crude oil moves through the 600-mile (965- kilometer) channel, making it almost six times busier than the Suez Canal.

The Formosaproduct Brick, a 70,000-deadweight ton Liberian- flagged vessel, was carrying naphtha, a light oil product usually used as petrochemical feedstock, according to Bruce Blakeman, a spokesman in Singapore for charterer Cargill Inc.

The ship is owned by Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Marine Corp. Formosa Plastics Group has no information to confirm the nine crew members are dead and will continue with the search, said Lin Keh-Yen, a spokesman for Formosa Petrochemical Corp., which owns 19 percent in and oversees Formosa Plastics Marine.

Naphtha Spillage

An air surveillance spotted a “minimal amount” of naphtha spillage around the sides of the ship, which was carrying about 53,000 metric tons of the oil product when the accident happened, said Charanpal Singh, a director at the Negeri Sembilan Department of Environment.

“There is no damage to the environment based on our initial findings,” as naphtha evaporates within a few hours, he said by telephone. “Still, no one can board the ship” because a spark could set off a fire or explosion, he said.

A salvage vessel is currently spraying the ship with water and foam, and it may take a day for it to cool down before anyone can board the ship to look for the crew, Charanpal said.

Surveyors aborted an attempt to board the ship because of the presence of poisonous gases, according to Tan from the enforcement agency.

Insurance Coverage

“Damages and death, if any, will be covered by insurance, and Formosa Plastics’ operations won’t be affected, as the tanker didn’t exclusively carry the group’s cargos,” he said by telephone from Taipei today. The cause of the accident is being determined by marine affairs experts, he added.

The collision occurred about 10 nautical miles southwest off Port Dickson in the Malaysian state of Negeri Sembilan at 9 p.m. local time on Aug. 18, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency said in a faxed statement today. Ostende Max, the bulk carrier involved in the incident, has been taken to Port Dickson for investigation, Bernama national news agency reported.

Ships skipping the Malacca strait would sail an extra 994 miles to get to East Asia from the Middle East, going via the Sunda straits.

China Shipping Container Lines Co., the country’s second- biggest carrier of sea-cargo boxes, said it will keep using the waterway because such an accident “is a rare case” that can be avoided, said Fan An, an investor relations officer at the Shanghai-based company.

The number of shipping accidents in the Straits of Malacca has declined in a decade after regional governments implemented a dual-traffic system around 1997, said Mathew Mathai, a manager at the Nippon Maritime Centre, a non-profit organization set up to enhance maritime safety in the Straits of Malacca.