What happens when a huge ship sinks? A step-by-step guide to disaster avoidance oceans

aAt 3:24 a.m. in the Atlantic Ocean, a catastrophe unfolds across the moonlit waters. MS Seascape – a six-deck, 200-meter freighter carrying 4,000 new electric vehicles – has been pushed by a swell in the reef. Annoyingly stopping, the ship began to roll violently alongside and capsize on a reef a few kilometers from port.

The Coast Guard receives the distress call. Helicopters ferry the estranged crew to safety, while support boats offload any cargo that hasn’t already fallen overboard. It’s urgent – the lithium-ion batteries in electric cars are prone to exploding and most vehicles are stored in a hold. In the event of a fire, the pot will become a giant pressure cooker.

Although our MS Seascape is a virtual ship, its situation is far from uncommon. In 2021, 54 large ships sank, ran aground, or caught fire, and this behemoth is more likely to spell disaster when things go wrong.

Abandoning ships is rarely an option. The dangers of oil and fuel spills mean that it is now standard practice to try to salvage them and repair any environmental damage. But the costs are enormous: The Costa Concordia, which ran aground off Genoa, Italy, in 2012, became the most expensive wreck removal operation in history, costing more than $1 billion and taking 350 rescue workers nearly three years.

No cookie-cutter approach to rescue: Each operation will vary depending on the location, water depth, weather, equipment, and sensitivity of the surrounding environment.

So what do you do with our default MS Seascape? Let’s get started.

Step 1: Contain spills and remove fuel

Spill containment and fuel removal

The danger posed by the MS Seascape, loaded with potentially explosive car batteries, is not unlike that of the 200-meter Felicity Ace, which caught fire in the mid-Atlantic before plunging at an unsalvageable 10,000 feet: 281 EVs are suspected of being on board. The plane may have caused or at least accelerated the fire.

To avoid this fate, a local salvage company is involved, one of a few dozen operators around the world about to rush to the scene of a marine disaster. Its first objective is to save the ship and return it to service.

Felicity Ice, which caught fire before sinking more than 60 miles off the Azores, was devastated by the fire. Photo: Portuguese Navy/Reuters

The location of the vessel has a significant impact on the speed of development of the process. The Rena, a container ship docked off the coast of New Zealand, had to wait several weeks for the equipment to arrive from Singapore – during which time the hull broke.

At this point, it’s too early to tell how much of an impact MS Seascape’s structure has had. In the morning, in calmer conditions, the salvage crew tracks a boom that loops around the ship to catch any fuel and hazardous waste.

Meanwhile, a specialist team begins to bleed more than 20 tanks holding more than 300,000 gallons of fuel, as well as potential contaminants such as lubricants, gases, oily water, and sludge.

They drill through the ship’s exposed double-walled steel exterior into fuel bunkers below, inserting pipes to pump waste to a waiting ship. Divers are sent to get inside the ships to drain the remaining submerged tanks. This is a delicate task: removing fuel could destabilize an already unstable ship, so this process could take days, possibly weeks.

Suddenly, crunch: After days of stressing against the reef by the current, stress fractures appear along the structure. They can wreck the ship. This dashes hopes of returning MS Seascape to service – the cost of recovery would now be more than the value of the ship itself.

The job goes from salvage to wreck removal and the real work begins.

Step 2: Cut the coaster into strips

Cut the vessel into strips

After 10 days, vessel fractures threaten to split the wreck. The team of hundreds of engineers, crane operators, firefighters, laborers, divers and architects must move quickly.

They cut down the residence building to break up the roof and simplify the process. One option to break the ship would be the use of explosives, such as those applied to the MSC Napoli, a giant container ship that docked off the southern coast of England in 2007 and exploded in two. But this would be disastrous for the fragile coral reef ecosystem beneath the wreckage.

Explosives were detonated in an attempt to wreck the cargo ship MSC Napoli near Branscombe, England, July 2007.
Explosives were detonated in an attempt to wreck the cargo ship MSC Napoli near Branscombe, England, July 2007. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Instead, the removal team chooses a thicker cable of diamond-encrusted wire that can cut through inch-thick steel. The saw was mounted in a custom frame which was raised by jacks and transported to the wreck site. Over a period of two days, her feet were embedded in the sea floor on either side of the wreck. Inside the frame, the wire is rotated at high speed through a system of pulleys and lowered, like a guillotine, into the chassis, cut by an ear-piercing roar.

Cutting a single cross-section can take up to 12 hours, but the saw’s surgical precision means it only grazes the corals below. It can also cut between cars parked on the lower decks so there are fewer falls into the sea and around the fuel tank.

Fuel isn’t the only environmental threat: Ships contain an extraordinary load of hazardous substances, such as antifouling chemicals and lead embedded in paint, asbestos in the walls, and mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) wound in the electricals from old ships. These pollutants will gradually leach out of structures that are left to rot in the ocean. A sunken German warship is still leaching chemicals into the North Sea more than 80 years later.

Step 3: Remove the sections and take it to the beach

Remove the clips and take them to the beach

MS Seascape is now surrounded by ships and equipment ready to engage as parts of the wreck are being cut away. With the ship’s bow resting on a reef, but its stern threatening to sink to the ocean floor when it breaks loose, the team has a two-pronged plan.

First, the massive floating: a gigantic crane on a floating platform capable of lifting 7,000 tons. It is a mechanical island with a housing complex for dozens of workers who will be at sea for weeks dismantling the wreckage.

The crew will split the ship into eight pieces. Starting at the arch, each bracket is drilled with holes through which cables are threaded, then lifted by crane. Piece by piece, the ship is carefully loaded onto waiting barges and hauled away.

The wreckage of the Costa Concordia cruise ship is towed off Giglio Island after it was refloated using air tanks attached to its sides, July 2014.
The wreckage of the Costa Concordia cruise ship is towed off Giglio Island after it was refloated using air tanks attached to its sides, July 2014. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images

The butt requires a different approach. Before the rear is cut free, the support vessels weld massive air-filled metal boxes called caissons to their exposed starboard side. These are partially filled with water, adding weight which rotates the stern vertically when cut free. When the stern is corrected, the port side caissons are also attached. On both sides they are filled in and deflated, achieving the perfect level of buoyancy to keep the stern afloat. Once released and launched into the water, the stern is towed to port.

Not all wrecks will need the same approach. Some with relatively minor damage, such as the Costa Concordia, can be patched, fully refloated with caissons, and then towed away. Others must be dredged from the sea floor, like the X-Press Pearl, whose cargo of nitric acid caught fire off Sri Lanka in 2019 and caused the ship to sink 68 feet — along with its cargo of 50 billion plastic “scatterings,” which Sri Lankan shores flooded.

The X-Press Pearl needed dozens of cables to lift it from the sea floor, but the monsoon season halted the mission, slowing a process already costing shipowners $40 million in environmental compensation claims from the Sri Lankan government.

Even with a well managed wreck like MS Seascape, some spillage is inevitable. Divers, with the help of remotely operated underwater vehicles, locate lost cars and other metal debris, and feed that information to a barge equipped with underwater magnets and mechanical handles.

Two months after the ship ran aground, there is no trace of the MS Navy ship left in the ocean – but the work continues.

Step 4: Dressing the bottom of the vessel

Dressing down the ship

Back on Earth, MS Seascape’s pieces are waiting to be taken apart. The ship has been flown with an EU flag, which means it must be broken up at one of 46 regulated yards spread across Europe, Turkey and the United States.

This means they will be handled under stricter requirements than ships in South Asian shipbreaking shores, where 70% of the world’s ships end their sea lives. Looser regulations at these sites result in dozens of worker deaths annually, and incalculable environmental impacts as pollutants seep onto beaches and the sea.

The MSC Napoli steel recycling freighter is dismantled at dry dock in Belfast, Northern Ireland, April 2008.
MSC Napoli Steel Recycling is dismantled at dry dock in Belfast, Northern Ireland, April 2008. Photo: Peter McDiarmid/Getty Images

However, in the dry dock in Italy where most of MS Seascape ends up, the waste is supposed to be contained. Over a period of several months, the ship is stripped back to the essentials: asbestos sheets, wiring, equipment, and furniture are removed until only the steel shell is left.

This is where most of the ship’s value now lies. Efficient smelting processes can recycle almost all of the ship’s steel: about 90% of the material is recycled on the Costa Concordia.

How megaships cause huge problems

Back at the reef, I started rehab. The water is monitored for residual contaminants, and teams begin transplanting nursery-grown corals into the shattered corals. This will take years: a decade after the Costa Concordia coup, damaged seagrass meadows are still being restored.

Now, reduced to molten steel, some of MS Seascape may be shaped into another gigantic ocean-going statue. As the ingenuity of shipbuilding grows, so will the efforts and costs – and the innovation – required to salvage these sailing ships at sea.

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