After rescuing 16 mariners off the burning vehicle cargo vessel Sincerity Ace on Monday, Coast Guard, Navy and crews from two commercial vessels continue to search for a handful of survivors who jumped into the Pacific Ocean to escape the flames.
But it looks grim for those victims. Four bodies have been found bobbing in the waves about 1,800 nautical miles northwest of Oahu but they’ve been unresponsive and make no effort to grasp lifesaving equipment.
Another missing mariner hasn’t been spotted yet, officials told Navy Times.
“The search is still going on at this time,” said Public Affairs Specialist 3rd Class Matthew West, a Coast Guard spokesman in Hawaii. “We’re very thankful for the AMVER vessels who have helped us out in this very remote area of the Pacific.”
AMVER — the Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue System — is a global voluntary computer-based reporting network that’s sponsored by the Coast Guard and used by rescuers worldwide.
Coast Guard watchstanders at Joint Rescue Coordination Center Honolulu received the initial distress message from their sister JRCC in Japan at 1:04 a.m. Monday.
The captain of the Sincerity Ace reported a “significant vessel fire, ongoing firefighting efforts, and an intent to abandon ship,” officials said.
The closest spit of land to the abandoned and adrift Sincerity Ace is Wake Island so that’s where a pair of HC-130 Hercules surveillance planes from Oahu’s Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point staged to continue the search.
At the same time, the Navy scrambled a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft from Patrol Squadron 47 that’s deployed to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa.
The Golden Swordsmen also staged at Wake and flew two very long flights on Tuesday and Wednesday. They started back Thursday (Japan time) after being relieved by the Coast Guard crews.
Canvassing 5,832 square nautical miles of ocean, the Navy crew found a lifeboat adrift on the high seas with no one in it, plus a pair of abandoned lifebuoys, which helped to narrow the search for everyone else.
“It’s not what we hoped to find but we were glad to help everyone,” said Lt. Joe Keiley, a spokesman for the Japan-based 7th Fleet.
The civilian crews of the motor carrier New Century 1 and the bulk cargo vessel Genco Augustus are still searching for survivors but one of the Coast Guard HC-130s had to peel off to aid a sinking ship in the Marshall Islands, officials told Navy Times.
Three other commercial vessels that initially responded to the AMVER request — the Green Lake, the SM Eagle and the Venus Spirit — also left to continue their voyages but Coast Guard watchstanders in Honolulu have sought help from other merchant ships to scan the waters for survivors.
Inside the search zone, officials describe white-capped waves between 15- to 18-feet high and winds clocked at 17 miles per hour.
Coast Guard officials still don’t know what sparked the New Year’s Eve fire on board the Sincerity Ace, a Panamanian-flagged commercial vehicle ship that’s operated by MOL Auto Carrier Express of the Japan-based Mitsui O.S.K. Lines.
The last voyage posted online by MOL Auto Carrier Express showed the Sincerity Ace departing the Daikoku Pier in the center of the Japanese port of Yokohama at 5:50 a.m. on Dec. 27 bound for Honolulu.
It’s been a busy new year for the Coast Guard in the Pacific.
One of the HC-130 crews on Wake Island was diverted to the Marshall Islands on Wednesday after watchstanders in Honolulu received a report of a 308-foot Chinese-flagged commercial fishing vessel, the Ou Ya Leng Number 6, aground on Taka Atoll.
Initial reports indicated that the fishing vessel was hunting squid when it scraped the coral reef and began taking on water, forcing its 24 crew members to abandon ship in a motor lifeboat.
In an update sent late Wednesday, however, the Coast Guard said that the HC-130 Hercules crew made contact with the mariners and they remained on board the vessel and using emergency generator power.
There are no reports of injuries to the crew of pollution escaping from the ship.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands has sent patrol vessel Lomor to respond and the Norwegian crude oil tanker Andrea Victory and two fishing boats are expected to arrive at the atoll on Thursday.
“This case is unfolding in a remote part of the Pacific with most surface vessels days away; thus the assistance of commercial vessels is extremely valuable to our effort coordinating help for this crew,” said Brendon Ritz of the Joint Rescue Coordination Center Honolulu in an email to Navy Times.
Prine came to Navy Times after stints at the San Diego Union-Tribune and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors and the Combat Infantryman Badge.