‘No Hope’ of Survivors After Iranian Tanker Explodes and Sinks off Chinese Coast

A burning Iranian oil tanker exploded and sank Sunday after more than a week listing off the coast of China, as an Iranian official acknowledged there was “no hope” of missing sailors surviving the disaster, Time reports.  The collision and disaster of the Sanchi, which carried 30 Iranians and two Bangladeshis, had transfixed an Iran still reeling from days of protests and unrest that swept the country at the start of the year.

The Sanchi, carrying 136,000 tonnes of light crude oil from Iran, had been in flames since colliding with the CF Crystal, a Hong Kong-registered bulk freighter, on 6 January. At about midday on Sunday local time, the ship “suddenly ignited”, with the vessel burning fiercely and a pall of smoke about 800-1,000 meters high, China’s transport ministry said, releasing dramatic pictures showing the tanker obscured by thick black smoke. The ship later sank, the official news agency Xinhua cited the State Oceanic Administration as saying.

The Chief of Staff of Iranian Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri offered condolences to the families of the crew of the Iranian oil tanker Sanchi bursting into flames from end to end and sinking off China’s coast. In a message of condolences over the death of sailors on board the Iranian oil tanker, Bagheri expressed great grief over the loss of 32 crew members of Iran’s Sanchi oil tanker.

“The calamitous and regrettable incident involving an Iranian oil tanker bursting into flames and sinking off China’s coast and the brave sailors who lost their lives during mission caused great sorrow and pain among the Iranian nation,” the message reads.

The Iranian Cabinet declared Monday, January 15, as a nationwide day of public mourning over the tanker disaster.

Families of the sailors wept and screamed at the headquarters of the National Iranian Tanker Co. in Tehran, the private company that owns the Sanchi. Some needed to be taken by ambulance to nearby hospitals as they were so overwhelmed by the news.

“Thirty-two people died without a funeral and without coffins! They burned to ashes while their families were wailing here!” cried out one woman who didn’t give her name. The government “has come after 10 days to sympathize with them? What sympathy are you talking about?”

“There is no hope of finding survivors among the (missing) 29 members of the crew. Despite our efforts, it has not been possible to extinguish the fire and recover the bodies due to repeated explosions and gas leaks,” State TV earlier quoted the chief of Iran’s maritime agency Mahmoud Rastad as saying.

Rastad said information from members of The Crystal’s crew suggested all personnel on the Sanchi had been killed in the first hour of the accident “due to the explosion and the release of gas”.

President Hassan Rouhani expressed his condolences and called on relevant government agencies to investigate the tragedy and take any necessary legal measures, according to state TV. In a message, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed his condolences and sympathy with the victims’ families, his own website, Khamenei.ir, reported Sunday. The government also announced Monday as a nationwide day of public mourning over the disaster.

The cause of the Jan. 6 collision between the Sanchi and the Chinese freighter CF Crystal, 257 kilometers off the coast of Shanghai, remains unclear. The CF Crystal had 21 crew members, all of whom were reported safe.

But the Sanchi, carrying nearly 1 million barrels of a gassy, ultra-light oil bound for South Korea, burst into flames. Chinese officials blamed poor weather for complicating their rescue efforts. Thirteen ships, including one from South Korea and two from Japan, engaged in the rescue and cleanup effort Saturday, spraying foam in an effort to extinguish the fire.

But around noon Sunday, Chinese state media reported that a large explosion shook the Sanchi, its hull and superstructure completely stripped of paint by the flames. The ship then sank into the sea. The Chinese say the ship left a 10-square-kilometer area contaminated with oil. However, the condensate oil the ship was carrying readily evaporates or burns off in a fire, reducing the chance of a major oil spill.

Cleanup efforts for the “Sanchi” oil tanker has begun after the flames on the Panama-registered ship off the coast of Shanghai were extinguished on Monday. The fire was extinguished at 9:58 BJT (1:58 GMT), while the cleanup started soon afterward.

The Shanghai maritime search and rescue center decided to terminate the large-scale search and rescue operation at noon on Monday. A strip of leaked oil ten nautical miles long and one to four nautical miles wide was spotted east of the ship. The State Oceanic Administration is now trying to specify the area of the spill and its consequences.

Chinese state media also said the ship’s voice data recorder, which functions like “black boxes” on aircraft, had been recovered. Three bodies have been recovered from the sea, leaving 29 crew members still unaccounted for.

A reporter with China’s state television CCTV on board a plane from the State Oceanic Administration reported seeing wreckage from the Sanchi and oil on the fire and spilled fuel covering a 10 sq km area.

“The oil spill situation is very serious,” CCTV quoted the reporter as saying on social media.

The broadcaster earlier also cited Zhang Yong, a senior engineer with the State Oceanic Administration, playing down fears of a spill.

“Because this is light crude oil spill, relatively speaking it has a much smaller impact than other oil spills because this kind of oil is especially volatile – most of it has entered the atmosphere, so it’s had less impact on the ocean. This area should be considered the open sea, very far from places where people live, so the human impact should be minimal,” Zhang was quoted as saying.

Rescue efforts had been particularly difficult because, at 89C, the vessel’s compartments were too hot for workers to withstand for long, CCTV quoted He Wang, an expert from Chinese oil company Huade Petrochemical, as saying.

The tanker has operated under five different names since it was built in 2008, according to the U.N.-run International Maritime Organization. The National Iranian Tanker Co. describes itself as operating the largest tanker fleet in the Middle East. It’s the second collision for a ship from the National Iranian Tanker Co. in less than a year and a half. In August 2016, one of its tankers collided with a Swiss container ship in the Singapore Strait, damaging both ships but causing no injuries or oil spill.