Crew Trapped on Disabled Ship in Ike's Wake

As Hurricane Ike churned toward the Gulf Coast of Texas, threatening a wide swath of the state's coastline with Category 2-force winds of 105 mph and a powerful tidal surge, the U.S. Coast Guard gave the order: all ships were instructed to leave port and head for safe haven at sea. The Antalina, a 584-foot freighter loaded with petroleum coke, heeded the warning and cruised out of Port Arthur to skirt Ike's wrath in a relatively calm spot on the open seas. But at about 4:00 a.m. Friday, the unthinkable happened: the ship's engines failed, stranding the 22-member crew about 90 miles southeast of Galveston, right in Hurricane Ike's path. The crew advised the Coast Guard of their predicament, but, perhaps hoping to repair the engines, did not ask to be rescued at that point, says Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Mike O'Berry. Their situation, however, quickly deteriorated.

As the storm strengthened, the Coast Guard decided, at noon Friday, to dispatch two rescue helicopters, a Falcon jet, and two Air Force airplanes, to airlift the Antalina's crew to safety. But 20 minutes into the mission, the rescue helicopters were forced back by 90-mph winds and swells topping 20 feet—much too rough to lower rescue swimmers in baskets. The jet managed to circle the ship and reported that, so far, it was undamaged. "These are big ships," O'Berry tells NEWSWEEK. "They're built for rough seas. Ships have gone through worse storms and come through. So of course we're hoping they'll be fine."

Now the sailors aboard the Antalina are being forced to stay put, hoping their lights and pumps keep working even if the engines won't. They're wearing life jackets and staying in hourly radio contact with the Coast Guard, while a tug boat heads around Ike's path to bring them home after the storm. NEWSWEEK's Gretel C. Kovach spoke with Darrell Wilson, a spokesman for TEO Shipping, which manages the Antalina. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What is happening now with the crew?
Darrell Wilson:
The crew is safe onboard the ship, they're just riding the storm out. Our guys [on the Antalina] are staying in close radio contact with the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard asked them to turn on their emergency transmitting beacon, which will allow them to monitor and track the position of the ship.

How did they end up in this predicament, right in Ike's path?
They were discharging a cargo when the Coast Guard ordered all of the ships that were in the port to go out to sea, where it's much easier for a large ship to ride out a hurricane. Our ship headed out and suffered some kind of engine casualty. But they're not completely dead in the water. They have significantly reduced engine power, and it's just not enough to get them out of there.

Fortunately the ship still had some cargo onboard, right?
Yes, if a ship has some cargo onboard, it helps stabilize it somewhat because it's not riding so high.

Where are they now?
They were trying to get out to open sea, and try and skirt as far as they could around the storm. The last report I had from the Coast Guard, they were approximately 120 miles southeast of Galveston. The vessel is drifting southwest, which is a good location for it to drift. That takes it away from the oil platforms.

What happened with the Coast Guard's rescue attempt?
They made a valiant effort, along with the U.S Air Force, but it was just impossible to make it all the way to the ship. The helicopters were just unable to fly into winds this strong. The other thing that made it extremely dangerous is, if the seas are 20 feet and you're trying to hoist someone off of a ship, well, the ship itself comes up 20 feet and it will come down 20 feet. So you're looking at a 40-foot drop. It's just too risky.

Was the plan to abandon the ship to the storm?
You've always got a possibility the ship would be just fine out there floating, or it could be blown on shore. I don't know what would have happened if they would have pulled the crew off. Our number one concern was for the crew. You can always replace a ship, but we have 22 people on board.

Have you been able to speak with them?
Other people in the company have spoken to them, when they've had the opportunity to get through. Communications are somewhat sketchy. The Coast Guard can reach them because they're within radio distance, so we know from the Coast Guard, that everyone onboard is safe. The last report I heard, everyone was doing quite well, they're just riding out the storm waiting for it to pass.

How do you think they're passing the time?
Any type of satellite phone capability with them is wiped out because of the weather, but they're quite busy onboard that ship, I'm sure. I can just imagine, having sailed in the past, that they're trying to see if the engines can be brought up to full speed—monitoring the weather, monitoring everything around them and the ship itself, to make sure everything is safe; that everything is staying fastened down, that the doors and windows are secured.

What kind of damage could a hurricane do to a freighter?
On something like Ike, I really couldn't say. Our main concern is the safety of the crew. They seem to be in good spirits, so we're all just standing by. We are extremely thankful that the Coast Guard and the Air Force even attempted to fly into that mess to rescue them. We are hoping for the best for them, and our thoughts and our prayers go out to everyone at sea and all those along the Gulf Coast.