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April 2009

USNS Salvor debeaches ship grounded in Hawaii
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By Meghan Patrick Henderson, MSC Public Affairs

Civil service mariners on USNS Salvor work to debeach the grounded USS Port Royal.
Civil service mariners on the deck of Military Sealift Command rescue and salvage ship USNS Salvor work to debeach the grounded USS Port Royal. U.S. Navy photo

Three days and four rescue attempts after the U.S. Navy's 567-foot-long guided-missile cruiser USS Port Royal ran aground on a rock and sand shoal off the shore of Honolulu, Military Sealift Command rescue and salvage ship USNS Salvor and other vessels helped to successfully free the grounded ship, Feb. 9.

Salvor's civil service crew members and divers from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit One, Pearl Harbor Company, provided assistance to the beached ship throughout the operation.

Eric Frank, Military Sealift Fleet Support Command towing and salvage specialist and retired U.S. Navy master diver, returned to his hotel room the evening of Feb. 5 to pack his bag after spending two weeks with Salvor's crew and MDSU 1 divers. He had been assisting in a debeaching exercise and had just finished helping with the routine offloading of Salvor's salvage equipment earlier that day. At 10 p.m., Frank answered a phone call from a local master diver, who notified him that the previous week's exercise had come to life.

"A USS ship is aground," reported the master diver. "Salvor may be tasked to assist." Frank was shocked. In 32 years of salvage and rescue, he had never witnessed the grounding of a commissioned Navy ship.

After authenticating the report, Frank woke up Salvor's master, Capt. John Sargent, with a call. In Sargent's 26-year career, this was also a first.

"You think it's valid?" Sargent asked.

"You're going to get a call," Frank predicted. "I'm on my way over."

Frank checked out of his hotel, and minutes into his drive, Sargent called back.

"Salvor's tasking isn't confirmed, but Pacific Fleet wants to know how long it would take for us to get underway," said Sargent. "I told them six hours."

The men did not waste any time; they immediately recalled the shoreside civil service mariners back to the ship and called Pearl Harbor's fleet and industrial company to arrange for a crane to assist Salvor in reloading the pieces of salvage equipment needed for the task at hand. Frank canceled his plane ticket home.

At midnight the tasking was confirmed by David Carmody, MSC's representative in Pearl Harbor, and by 7:20 a.m., Salvor was underway with 26 crew members and 14 Navy divers. The ship soon arrived on scene, where Port Royal was aground the length of its hull, in 17- to 22-foot deep water.

Sargent positioned buoys at specific depths for shallow-water reference points and waited for further instruction from the operation team aboard Port Royal, and a large ocean tug, which has twice the pulling strength of Salvor, arrived on scene.

Over the next three days, the assisting ships made three attempts to free Port Royal. The daily window of opportunity was narrow because the debeaching attempts were most effective when made during high tide.

Rescuers learned in their first and second attempts that the ship could not be pivoted off of the reef. Because of Port Royal's position, the ship needed to be pulled laterally off the shoal. MDSU divers, who were tasked to harness the rescue ships to Port Royal, performed area surveys with side-scan sonar equipment after every attempt to inform the operational commanders of the underwater damage and positioning of the ship.

"Fifty percent of salvage is diving," said Frank, who noted that the MDSU divers faced the dangers of low visibility and tumbling on the sharp reef by shallow-water swells.

Norfolk-based Mark Helmkamp, rescue and salvage and fleet ocean tug class manager of Military Sealift Fleet Support Command, helped advise the divers throughout the operation.

"Time is of the essence in salvage," said Helmkamp. "With salvage there is no rest. You're in it until it's over. The ocean doesn't stop pushing the ship up on the rock."

At 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 9, Salvor and the other vessels successfully freed Port Royal during the rescue team's fourth attempt.

"Everyone was elated," said Sargent. "The experience was unique and interesting. I certainly learned a few tricks. Because salvage ships function as team players, it's always useful to observe how the pot of soup is stirred. Every rescue situation gives me a better understanding of how salvage ship responsibilities fit into the big picture."

Port Royal, bearing damage, was towed to shore. Salvor's crew stayed at the scene for two extra days to recover Port Royal's anchors and 1,800 feet of chain, which were removed, along with many crew members, to lighten the load during the salvage effort.

"Salvage teams stay out of the limelight most of the time," said Frank. "But when situations like the Interstate-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota, Hurricane Katrina or the Trans-World Airlines Flight 800 disaster occur, they appear and shock the world with their capabilities."

Salvor is currently supporting U.S. 3rd Fleet operations.