The USS Guardian (MCM 5) is seen in this photo taken January 17, 2013 by the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command after the US Navy minesweeper ran aground at Tubbataha Reef. -- Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command
MANILA, Philippines - A US Navy minesweeper that ran aground at Tubbataha Reef last week is "too damaged" to just tow away from the world heritage site, a US military official said.
Rear Adm. Tom Carney, the on-scene commander of the salvage operation at the reef, said the USS Guardian's hull has been punctured and several areas of the ship are now flooded.
"The option that we had hoped to tow the ship off the reef is not available,” Carney said. “The ship is too badly damaged."
According to the US Navy's 7th Fleet, the USS Guardian, which has a primary mission to detect and counter mines, has a wooden hull covered in fiberglass similar to surfboards.
"The repeated pounding of heavy seas on the ship, which hampered recovery efforts in the days immediately following the grounding, has also resulted in the loss of much of the fiberglass coating on the port side," the US 7th Fleet Public Affairs said in a statement online.
One US Navy photo of the il-fated ship dated January 22 shows the reef seemingly supporting the vessel's entire weight.
To prevent potential environmental damage, a U.S. Navy-led salvage team on Friday completed removing all diesel fuel from the tanks of the minesweeper.
No fuel has leaked since the grounding and approximately 15,000 gallons was safely transferred to the contracted Malaysian tug Vos Apollo during controlled defueling operations that occurred over the last 2 days, according to the US Navy
“One of our priorities was to get the fuel out of the ship in order to minimize environmental damage,” Carney said.
Carney, who spoke about the salvage operations during a joint press conference with Philippine Coast Guard Rear Adm. Rodolfo Isorena in Puerto Princesa, Palawan on Thursday, said the US Navy is working in close cooperation with the Philippine Coast Guard and Navy to develop a plan to safely remove the ship.
“The problem is very complex, and both Naval architects and salvage engineers are working together to develop plans,” Carney said. “The nature of the shipboard damage makes it a difficult operation, and the dynamic nature of the environment increases those challenges.”
Two heavy lift ship-borne cranes will support the salvage operations and are due to arrive at the scene around February 1.
Carney said his top priorities are to ensure no one is injured during salvage operations while carefully preventing more damage to the Tubbataha Reef.
“I have been to the Philippines many times before and truly understand the reef is a national treasure and very important to the Philippine people,” he said.