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

April 1, 2004
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. 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.
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.

Within hours, an emergency operation center (EOC) was prepared at the New York State Environmental Conservation (EnCon) building located just outside the port entrance. Over the next several hours, the Albany Fire Department continued to search for the three missing crewmembers with assistance from the New York State Police searching around the vessel and along the Hudson’s shoreline by helicopter. Divers from the Albany Fire Department and Albany Police Department assessed the river’s turbulence and icing conditions, which ultimately prohibited a safe dive in areas of considerable debris, hampered by zero visibility.

Search Is Negative

In an effort to exhaust all possibilities of locating the missing Russian crew, the Capitol District Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Team was requested to deploy listening devices on the overturned vessel. The result of this tactic was negative, and helped with the decision to end the active search for the night. The police provided the initial security for the scene, searched the shoreline by foot and notified other police agencies of the possibility that one of the unaccounted-for crewmembers may have been thrown from the ship. The notification to other police agencies was important because many communities downstream border the Hudson River. Albany police also began interviews with the Russian-speaking crew, in cooperation with the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), to confirm the identities of the missing crewmembers. Russian Orthodox clergy were brought to the scene to assist with the interviews, grieving process and language barriers. It was suggested that members of the clergy could provide valuable guidance in the handling of cultural issues unfamiliar to the rescuers.

Within hours of the initial call, direction was coming from the unified command group at the EOC. Upon the arrival of the Coast Guard commander, a briefing was held with the unified command group and the EOC framework solidified for the work to be done there over the next three weeks. By 10:30 P.M. on Dec. 9, the active search was suspended, a surveillance plan was developed for the Stellamare’s missing crew and a pollution control plan was implemented by Gallagher Marine, the identified “responsible party.”

Day 2 of the incident began with a morning briefing conducted by the Coast Guard with the unified command group, as transitioning of priority operations were to continue through the day. The Albany Public Safety divers continued to investigate the possibility of voids where the crew could have been sheltered, while salvage divers began the process of plugging vent tubes in the ship where small quantities of the nearly 100,000 gallons of diesel, heavy and lubricating oil were beginning to seep into the Hudson. It was during these operations that communication and cooperation among the responders was found to be of tremendous importance.

By day 3, it had been determined that public safety divers could no longer adequately search the rest of the vessel until salvage crews began to remove much of the debris that had resulted from the ship’s capsize. Riggers and salvage divers from four private contractors began removing hatch covers, cables and metal plates weighing thousands of pounds. Pollution-control experts also continued deploying hard booms to contain any oil that found its way into the Hudson and remove as much of the product from those containment areas as possible. The Albany Police Department and the Albany Department of Fire and Emergency Service remained on scene providing security, EMS at the site and divers at the ready, as the missing crewmembers’ recovery remained a top priority. The EOC was now a hub of activity, hosting private contractors, insurance adjusters, salvage and diving companies, surveyors and owners of the electric stators. The City of Albany, Albany County, the State of New York, the federal government and representatives from the Netherlands were also in attendance at the EOC, making open communications even more invaluable.

Crewmembers Recovered

Salvage divers found one missing crewmember on Dec. 19 and a second crewmember the following morning, day 12 of the operation. After salvage divers located the bodies of the crew, Albany Public Safety Divers, in conjunction with divers from the New York State Police and officers from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, brought the bodies to the surface. Using the crane from the Port of Albany, the EnCon boat with the bodies aboard was hoisted to the pier where police department forensic detectives began identifying them with help from photos supplied by the shipping company.

With just a few days before Christmas, many had high hopes for the recovery of the final victim. Salvage crews ultimately worked through the holidays with no sign of the third crewmember. Since the recovery of the first crewmember and through the New Year, salvage crews had made significant progress in removing debris and righting the ship. The news media had grown impatient after the first few days of the operation as progress in righting the ship was seen as slow. The public, unaware of the complexity of the salvage operation, monitored the situation through newspaper articles, TV broadcasts and highly critical local talk radio programs. City of Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings played a key role in dealing with members of the media over the 28-day incident. The mayor, routinely seen at the EOC and out on the pier, worked closely with a public relations representative from the shipping company and the Department of Public Safety spokesperson to deliver an accurate and unified message as progress in the operation was made.

Twenty-seven days after the Stellamare overturned, salvage crews spotted the third crewmember wedged behind hundreds of pounds of three-inch metal rigging cable 30 feet high along the side of the cargo hold. Retrieving the body was the job of Albany’s Rescue Squad, working with members of the Training Division and Ladder 1. The operation proved challenging as firefighters worked from ropes and on ground ladders under a 15-ton cargo shelf that had become wedged in place during the accident.

Planning and preparation for the three-hour extraction of the final crewmember was meticulously undertaken. The operation was a significant challenge as the victim’s body was wedged in place by its weight and the debris that entangled him. By moving the debris to free the sailor, rescuers would have to consider the possibility that their action could affect the pontoon’s stability. Adding to the difficulties, the weather conditions had deteriorated, dropping the temperature into the teens. Snow had also fallen overnight, making footing on the deck extremely slippery.

After painstakingly building redundant safety measures into the operation, and with most all the work in camera shot of the media, the final crewmember was freed and brought to the pier. All in attendance on the pier extended the Russian sailor the same respect as his comrades, giving a salute and a moment of silence as the bodies were moved past the salvage crews, rescuers and dignitaries. The Stellamare incident, a focus of the Capitol District, had come to a close 28 days after the accident occurred.

Lessons Learned

The success of the Stellamare incident can be measured in different ways, depending on your perspective. Having recovered all of the crewmembers was gratifying as there were strong feelings that the third member could have been lost in the Hudson and not been recovered for months. That alone was viewed as important, as the crews’ families were counting on the City of Albany, New York State and the United States to recover their loved ones. The month-long operation, though dangerous in many ways, resulted in only one minor scalp laceration among the hundreds of workers at the site over the entire 28-day period.

If there is a lasting lesson to be learned from the incident, it is that cooperation among agencies is of paramount importance. Inter-agency cooperation, “checking your ego at the door” in a mission-first mindset, is far more productive than worrying about who’s in charge. Without warning, what you think is a local emergency can develop into an international incident before the full first-alarm assignment has arrived.

Bill Davis, EMT-P, is a 23-year veteran with the City of Albany, NY, Department of Fire and Emergency Service. He holds undergraduate degrees in fire protection and emergency management and is enrolled in the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program. Davis is a deputy chief of training, EMS and hazmat. He was the planning section chief and served in the unified command group at the Stellamare incident.

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