SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Four crew members trapped in the belly of an overturned cargo ship waited for nearly 36 hours in pitch darkness and oven-like heat, perched on pipes and railings above deep water before they were pulled to safety, coordinators of the rescues said Tuesday.
The South Korean sailors emerged Monday from a hole drilled through the steel-plated hull of the Golden Ray, which flipped onto its side along the Georgia coast. Three of them were found in the engine room after making tapping sounds all night to show they were alive, and to help rescuers figure out where they were inside the massive vessel. The fourth had to be rescued from a partially submerged control room, trapped behind blast-proof glass that had to be cut with a diamond-tipped tool.
"These guys were in the worst possible conditions you could imagine a human being to be in," said Tim Ferris, president of the salvage company Defiant Marine, which the U.S. Coast Guard called in to help plan and conduct the rescues. "They survived a ship's fire, a ship capsizing, landing on the side 90-degrees in an engine room, not knowing what the conditions were in pitch black darkness."
Ferris told The Associated Press the crewmen had to find purchase in the dark along a maze of plumbing and equipment to stay above deep water flooding the 656-foot (200-meter) long ship, where everything around them had suddenly gone sideways.
They also endured crushing heat and humidity. As daytime temperatures outside rose into the 90s, he said, the ship's interior approached roughly 150 degrees (65.5 Celsius).
"The temperature in the engine room was hellish," Ferris said. "They were being cooked."
The Golden Ray had just left the Port of Brunswick when it overturned at about 2 a.m. Sunday with more than 4,000 cars and other vehicles in its cargo hold. The cause remains unknown.
The busy automobile port about 70 miles (112 kilometers) south of Savannah remained closed Tuesday as the Coast Guard shifted attention to how best to remove the giant vessel and contain any environmental damage.
Oil sheen spotted in the water of St. Simons Sound where the ship overturned was being soaked up by absorbent boom that acts like a string of large cotton balls, said Petty Officer Luke Clayton, a Coast Guard spokesman.
"There is a light sheen," Clayton said. "There's no sign that the actual fuel cells or fuel holds of the vessel are leaking."
He said the oil may have come from fuel cans that fell into the water from the ship's deck, or perhaps from the vehicles inside the cargo hold.
Only ships carrying perishable goods that can't be rerouted are being allowed into the port, Clayton said, while others are being diverted to nearby seaports such as Savannah and Charleston, South Carolina. He said he didn't know how long the Brunswick port will remain closed, but removing the Golden Ray "is something that will take weeks to do."
The trapped sailors "had the bare minimum in terms of supplies" before they were rescued, Clayton said. He didn't know their conditions Tuesday.
Sylvia Tervoort, a salvage expert who helped coordinate the rescues, told ABC's "Good Morning America" on Tuesday: "They are doing well at the moment. They were really exhausted when they came out."
The Coast Guard moved in quickly to rescue 20 of the men onboard after when the ship overturned on Sunday, using winches to pull the men one by one into a hovering helicopter. But fire and concerns about instability, slowed efforts to go after the remaining four.
To conduct those final rescues, the Coast Guard called in private salvage specialists with expertise in navigating shipwrecks in hazardous conditions.
Fearing a cutting torch might ignite fumes from fuel inside the ship, Ferris said, crews used drills to bore a hole just large enough to let some fresh air into the engine room and lower a radio, flashlights, food, water and electrolyte popsicles to the three men inside.
Rescuers then spent several hours drilling more than 40 holes side-by-side to cut away a section of the hull large enough to fit a ladder, Ferris said. Two of the men in the engine room had strength to climb out on their own, he said. The third was weak from fatigue and was brought up on a stretcher.
Getting the final sailor out was a much more difficult challenge. He was trapped in a control room about 180 feet (55 meters) from the entry hole, requiring a 40-foot (12-meter) climb. The control room's door was underwater, Ferris said, trapping the man behind "blast-proof glass designed to withstand an explosion."
Wearing respirators in the stifling heat, rescuers made several unsuccessful attempts to free the crewman.
"At one point they had to fill ziplock sandwich bags full of ice and put them in every pocket of the team that went in, to cool their body temperatures as they climbed and worked," Ferris said. "There are much better ways to do it if you have time to get your hands on the right supplies. But it did the trick."
The team finally used a handheld cutter with a diamond tip to make score marks in the glass and break it. Ferris said the sailor "came out with a spring in his step."
"It was miraculous," he said. "When they came out and had sunlight on their faces, it brought a tear to the eyes of a lot of tough guys. It was a rescue of a lifetime."
pulled four trapped men alive from a capsized cargo ship Monday, drilling into the hull's steel plates to extract the crew members more than a day after their vessel overturned while leaving a Georgia port.
All four were described as alert and in relatively good condition and were taken to a hospital for further evaluation.
"Best day of my 16-year career," Lt. Lloyd Heflin, who was coordinating the effort, wrote in a text message to The Associated Press.
A video posted online by the Coast Guard showed responders clapping and cheering as the final man, wearing only shorts, climbed out of a hole in the hull and stood up.
Three of the South Korean crew members came out in the midafternoon. The fourth man, who was trapped in a separate compartment, emerged three hours later.
The rescues followed nearly 36 hours of work after the Golden Ray, a giant ship that carries automobiles, rolled onto its side early Sunday as it was leaving Brunswick, bound for Baltimore.
"All crew members are accounted for," Coast Guard Southeast wrote on Twitter. "Operations will now shift fully to environmental protection, removing the vessel and resuming commerce."
South Korean President Moon Jae-in sent a letter to President Donald Trump to express gratitude over the successful rescue of the men, saying that the news brought "huge relief and joy" to South Koreans.
The presidential Blue House said Moon also sent a letter to U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Karl Schultz and praised the "courage and dedication" of Coast Guard members involved in the rescue.
In the hours immediately after the accident, the Coast Guard lifted 20 crew members into helicopters before determining that smoke and flames and unstable cargo made it too risky to venture further inside the vessel. Officials were concerned that some of the 4,000 vehicles aboard may have broken loose.
That left responders looking for the remaining four crew members. At first, rescuers thought the noises they were hearing inside could be some of the vehicles crashing around. But by dawn Monday, they were confident that the taps were responses to their own taps, indicating someone was alive inside.
"It was outstanding when I heard the news this morning that we had taps back throughout the night," Capt. John Reed said. Those sounds helped lead rescuers to the right place on the 656-foot (200 meter) vessel and provided motivation.
"They were charged up knowing the people were alive," Reed said.
On Monday morning, rescuers landed on the side of the Golden Ray and rappelled down the hull. Heflin, who was coordinating the search, said they found three men in a room close to the propeller shaft, near the bottom of the stern. Responders began drilling, starting with a 3-inch (7.5-centimeter) hole. Coast Guard officials brought the ship's chief engineer, who was rescued Sunday, out to the ship to translate, and found the three men were "on board and OK," as Heflin put it.
Reed said rescuers passed food and water through the hole to the men. They also provided fresh air to the propeller room, which Reed said was even hotter than outside, where the high was 93 degrees (34 Celsius).
Responders set up a tent on the hull and began drilling additional holes, eventually making an opening large enough to insert a ladder and help the men climb out.
"It was like connect the dots," Reed said of the hole, which grew to 2 feet by 3 feet (0.6 meters by 1 meter).
The fourth rescue was a greater challenge. That crewman was behind glass in a separate engineering compartment on another deck, Reed said.
The Golden Ray is now stuck in the shipping channel, closing one of the busiest U.S. seaports for shipping automobiles. One ship is unable to leave port and four more are lined up outside waiting to come in, according to ship-tracking website Marine Traffic.
A statement issued Monday by the South Korea foreign ministry said the crew members were isolated in an engine room. It said 10 South Koreans and 13 Filipinos had been on board, along with a U.S. harbor pilot, when the ship began tilting.
Position records for the Golden Ray show the ship arrived in port in Brunswick Saturday evening after making the short sail from a prior stop in Jacksonville, Florida. The ship then departed the dock in Brunswick shortly after midnight and was underway only 23 minutes before its movement stopped in the mouth of the harbor where it capsized, according to satellite data recorded by Marine Traffic.
Port officials were "working closely with the Coast Guard to reopen the channel," Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Griff Lynch said in a statement after the final man was rescued.
The cause of the capsizing remains under investigation. Marine Traffic shows the Golden Ray overturned as it was passed by another car carrier entering St. Simons Sound.
At the time, the skies were clear and the weather calm, with a southerly breeze of only 5 miles per hour, according to National Weather Service records.
Many of those rescued were taken to the International Seafarers' Center in Brunswick. Sailors arrived with only what they were wearing when rescued. A restaurant donated a meal, and the volunteer-run center provided the seamen with clothes, toiletries and Bibles.
The vessel is owned by Hyundai Glovis, which carries cars for automakers Hyundai and Kia as well as others.
In a statement, the company thanked the Coast Guard for saving the crew and sought to assure the public that it would now focus on "mitigating damage to property and the environment."
Amy reported from Atlanta. Associated Press Writer Michael Biesecker contributed from Washington.