The Capsize of the Stellamare: Maritime Emergency Grows into Multi-Agency Rescue Operation

Bill Davis reports on the greatest challenge to the City of Albany’s emergency response capabilities, the capsize of a cargo ship.


The City of Albany lies 150 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River. Serving a population of approximately 96,000 night-time residents, the City of Albany Department of Fire and Emergency Services responds to roughly 20,000 fire, EMS and rescues call a year with a staff of 260 firefighters...


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The City of Albany lies 150 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River. Serving a population of approximately 96,000 night-time residents, the City of Albany Department of Fire and Emergency Services responds to roughly 20,000 fire, EMS and rescues call a year with a staff of 260 firefighters. Having responded to many unusual incidents over the department’s 136-year history, few in the department could have anticipated dealing with a capsized cargo ship at the Port of Albany.

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Photo By Lt. Bob Cook
The Dutch-owned cargo ship Stellamare capsized in the Port of Albany, NY, while loading electrical equipment. Here, the vessel lies on its port side in 35 feet of frigid water.

On Dec. 9, 2003, the Stellamare, a Dutch-owned cargo ship registered in the Netherlands, had just loaded into the cargo hold the first of two electric stators bound for Europe (a stator is the stationary part of a motor, dynamo, turbine or other working machine about which a rotor turns). The number-one electric stator weighed approximately 234 metric tons. While the first stator was being welded in place, the second stator, weighing 308 metric tons, was readied for loading. The Stellamare, considered a “heavy lift” cargo ship, has on its deck two cranes, each with a capacity of 180 tons, that work in tandem to accomplish the delicate loading process.

As the second stator was being lifted into position over the cargo hold, the Stellamare began listing to the port side. The more the vessel leaned, the more it became unstable until it leaned into the Hudson and began taking on thousands of gallons of icy river water. At about 3 P.M., the first 911 call was received for a ship overturned at the Port of Albany. The Stellamare now lay on its port side in 35 feet of frigid water with the second electric stator on the river floor. The outcome of the miscue in the loading operation had caused the first ship capsize in the United States in nearly 20 years and the greatest challenge to the City of Albany’s emergency response capabilities since the crash of a 40-passenger commuter plane in the early 1970s.

Sailors Await Rescue

The first-arriving Albany firefighters found some of the 18 members of the Russian crew perched on various high points of the now capsized vessel. Stevedores, crane operators and tugboats working at the port had already begun what would become the fire department’s responsibility of rescuing the five crew members who had been thrown to the icy Hudson. A few of the crewmembers were able to rescue themselves, while others relied on the Albany Fire Department working with stevedores and tugboats to bring them to the pier. Injured and uninjured crewmembers still on the ship would be rescued in an operation involving the port crane and its operator and members of Ladder 2 and the rescue squad.

The first-arriving battalion chief initiated an incident management system to organize a rapidly escalating emergency scene. An incident commander was identified, as were a chief of operations and EMS and planning sections. A safety officer and a staging area manager were identified and the department’s public information officer was called, as the media would spend the next 28 days with members of the rescue and salvage crews. Nearly 100 members of Albany’s Department of Public Safety were at the scene at the height of the incident, which spanned over 500 feet of the pier.

Almost immediately, city, county, state, federal and private agencies were at the site in an effort to assist in the operation. The pier soon had over 200 responders at the ship’s side. The transition from the Albany Fire Department incident management system to a unified command system took place as representatives from more than two dozen agencies, public and private, were on the way or already at the scene. Incidents on navigable waterways are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard, which took the lead role in the investigation and salvage of the Stellamare and the search and rescue of the three crewmembers still missing.

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