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Ship rescue now search for bodies

Salvage experts have pumped air into the hull of the freighter.
Salvage experts have pumped air into the hull of the freighter.

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BERGEN, Norway (Reuters) -- Salvage workers are now searching for 15 bodies entombed in a capsized cargo ship in a west Norwegian fjord after a mysterious accident.

Worried that the upturned "Rocknes" might sink, workers were pumping air into the hull to help keep it afloat. Police were discussing whether to tow the wreck from the busy Bergen bay to the quiet nearby Askoy island.

"The hull is now also a graveyard and we have to show respect for the dead," said spokesman Olav Arvesen at the Coastal Administration. "We have to keep that in mind when we plan our work."

Four special clean-up vessels and many smaller boats used huge shovels to dig up a thick layer of oil spreading in the icy fjord, threatening marine life and recreational areas on Norway's west coast, which is popular with tourists.

Rescue workers abandoned the search for more survivors on Tuesday after the vessel, with a mostly Filipino crew of 30, suddenly capsized a day before. Twelve survived with the other 18 presumed dead. (Full story)

Of the survivors, three men were rescued after surviving almost seven hours in the engine room inside of the hull. Three bodies have been recovered and another 15 are believed trapped in the hull.

A police spokesman said they might choose to leave the ship harnessed to land in Bergen -- held in place by a supply vessel and tug boats -- and pump out any remaining oil. Divers might be used to search the wreck.

Environmentalists criticised coastal authorities for waiting too long to start cleaning up the spill from Rocknes' 445 tonnes of fuel oil, saying it threatened up to 10,000 seabirds in a nearby reserve, some of them rare species.

They said an estimated 200-300 seabirds had aleady had their wings contaminated with oil. Strong currents in the North Sea meant the oil moved relatively fast.

"I have a gun and I have permission from local authorities to kill any bird that is suffering," Norwegian environmental campaigner Kurt Oddekalv told Reuters.

The 12 survivors -- the crew's three Dutch members, eight Filipinos and one Norwegian -- were all in fairly good shape, a hospital offical said. Of the dead, 16 were Filipinos, one was German and one Norwegian, all between 26 and 56 years old.

Rocknes' Norwegian owners Jebsen Management AS said the cause of the accident was not known. Witnesses said there were large gashes on the hull, indicating the ship might have run aground, shifting the cargo and causing the 28,000 deadweight tonne vessel to list.

Rocknes was last checked in Bergen in August and showed no faults.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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