Filipino sailors from NZ oil ship forced into hiding

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Oct 14 2011 03:45 PM | Updated as of Oct 16 2011 01:57 AM

TAURANGA - Filipino sailors from the ship responsible for New Zealand's worst sea pollution disaster are being kept at a secret location amid fears for their safety, the ship's agent said Friday.

As salvage crews raced to stop more oil from seeping from the stricken Rena which hit a reef last week, Mediterranean Shipping Co. (MCS) said the six sailors still in the country were staying at an undisclosed location.

The Philippine embassy said 19 of the 25-man crew had already flown home after being interviewed by New Zealand authorities over the disaster in the ecologically sensitive Bay of Plenty which teems with wildlife.

Two of the remaining six, the captain and second officer, were charged this week over the October 5 accident, with a Tauranga court ordering their identities be suppressed after lawyers raised concerns they may be targeted.

MSC, which was chartering the Rena for the voyage when it hit the reef, said there had been no direct threat to the sailors but that they were being kept in an anonymous location as a precaution.

"We're keeping them low key, at an undisclosed location," said shipping agent Mike Hodgins.

"We're not going to parade them in front of everyone in case some nutcase does something he shouldn't," he told AFP.

Hodgins said they were not under police protection and most people in the North Island community were taking a common sense approach to the disaster that has blackened their beaches, although he had seen some anger toward the crew.

"I've been out in town and heard some people saying things, but it's just talk," he said.

The New Zealand Herald newspaper reported members of the bay's small Filipino community had complained of being abused by furious locals.

However the Philippine embassy said the crew had been well treated by authorities, and that "reported negative reactions to the Filipino people there are few and are not reflective of the general sentiments of the public."

Tauranga mayor Stuart Crosby said frustrations over the accident should not be vented on the crew.

"In some respects that crew are victims as well, and I'd like to think that we'd be looking after them in a proper manner, as Kiwis should," he told TVNZ.

Maritime New Zealand (MNZ) said the slick which has dumped clumps of oil on beaches had thinned but was becoming wider, with Whakatane, 90 kilometers (56 miles) east of Tauranga, bracing to be hit.

A massive clean-up operation was also under way along the coastline, doubling in scale Friday to 1,000 people, MNZ said.

Authorities have ordered the public off polluted beaches and advised nearby residents to keep their windows closed to avoid noxious fumes from the spill.

Meanwhile, salvage crews resumed a "highly risky" operation to try to pump remaining oil from the vessel, which is teetering precariously on the reef and with huge cracks in its hull after being battered by a storm.

Matt Watson, whose company Svitzer is leading efforts to save the ship, said helicopters and navy vessels were on standby to evacuate the six men on board if the ship begins to fall apart.

He said the decks of the badly listing ship were coated in oil and strewn with loose containers. The crews were working by torchlight in "pitch black" conditions when they were below deck.

"It's a very, very difficult working environment and the moment there is a sense that it may be too dangerous, or if anything changes, they will be getting back off that vessel quick smart," he told Radio New Zealand.

Up to 700 tonnes of oil has leaked from the vessel, creating a black tide that has killed hundreds of sea birds. The salvage crews hope to drain the Rena's fuel tanks to stop all 1,700 tonnes spewing into the sea.

MNZ said 1,000 dead birds had been recovered and teams were trying to round up seals in the area. They had caught three so far.