- U.S. minesweeper has been stuck off Philippines since January 17
- Attempts to float the ship at high tide failed
- Crews are removing fuel, hazardous materials, salvageable things
- Fragile reef hosts 500 fish species, 350 coral species
A 224-foot-long U.S. warship will have to be cut into smaller pieces to get it off a Philippine reef where it grounded two weeks ago, Navy officials said Wednesday.
They said that's the only way to prevent further damage to the Tubbataha Reef, a Philippine national park and UNESCO World Heritage site, where the USS Guardian, an Avenger-class mine countermeasures ship, ran aground on January 17.
Lt. Anthony Falvo, a U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet spokesman in Pearl Harbor,Hawaii, told CNN on Wednesday that Navy salvage experts are stillformulating the details of how they'll cut up the 1,312-ton minesweeper.
Crews are now working to remove any hazardous materials from the vessel and will look to save anything that could still prove useful tothe Navy. The ship's 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel were removed lastweek.
"We will strip it out beforehand. We'll work to salvage any parts thatcan be salvaged," Falvo said. Then the cutting will begin.
Heavy-lift cranes are expected at the site of the grounding, about 80miles (130 kilometers) east-southeast of Palawan Island in the Sulu Sea,in the next few days, Falvo said. The cranes will lift the pieces of theGuardian onto barges or other ships to be taken away.
Last week, the Navy said it hoped to lift the ship off the reef in itsentirety. But Falvo said Wednesday that after reviewing all thealternatives, it was decided it would have to be cut up.
After it struck the reef, initial efforts to free the Guardian at hightide were unsuccessful. Its crew of 79 was evacuated to other vessels,and the ship was battered by waves that pushed it farther onto the reef,causing leaks in its wood-and-fiberglass hull.
"The ship cannot move on its own, and it is not operational," Rear Adm.Tom Carney said last week.
Stripping, cutting up and removing the Guardian from the reef could takemore than a month, Falvo said Wednesday.
This isn't the first time the Navy has had to undertake such anoperation, but it hasn't happened in more than 40 years. In August 1971,the supply ship USS Regulus grounded in Hong Kong harbor during Typhoon Rose, Falvo said. It took more than a month to cut that vessel up and remove it, he said. A similar operation was also conducted in 1916, he said.
As for what the loss of the Guardian, one of 14 Avenger class minecountermeasures ships in the Navy, means for the service, Falvo said itwas too early to speculate. He pointed out that the vessel was in the23rd year of its expected 30-year lifespan.
The ship cost about $61 million to build, Lt. Cmdr. James Stockman, aNavy spokesman, said last week.
As for other costs, Philippine officials said last week that thePhilippines would seek compensation for damage to the reef. About 1,000 square meters (about 10,760 square feet) of it have been damaged.
"It's a damage to a world heritage site. It's a damage to our naturalresources. It's a damage to an important site. We cannot but putemphasis on the importance of this reef as a heritage site,"presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said.
The reef is home to a vast array of sea, air and land creatures, as wellas sizable lagoons and two coral islands. About 500 species of fish and350 species of coral can be found there, as can whales, dolphins,sharks, turtles and breeding seabirds, according to UNESCO.
The salvage operation must ensure that the reef sustains nofurther damage, Lacierda said.
Navy officials are still trying to determine how the Guardian ended upon the reef.
Stockman, the Navy spokesman, said last week that the U.S. NationalGeospatial-Intelligence Agency, which prepares the digital navigationcharts used by the Navy, has reported the location of the reef wasmisplaced on a chart by nine miles.
"The U.S. Navy investigation will review what charts Guardian was using.While this erroneous navigation chart data is important information, noone should jump to conclusions," Stockman said. "It is critical that theU.S. Navy conduct a comprehensive investigation that assesses all thefacts and circumstances surrounding the Guardian grounding."