Rescuers from the Coast Guard and Alaska Air National Guard late Monday saved 23 crew members from an Asian cargo ship taking on water south of the Aleutian Islands.
"People are out of harm's way, they are rescued and they are safe," said Alaska National Guard spokesman Maj. Mike Haller.
All 23 crew members were hoisted into two National Guard Pave Hawk helicopters and a Coast Guard helicopter and taken to Adak Island in the Aleutians, 230 miles to the north of the Cougar Ace.
The rescue was conducted in "very challenging weather," said Master Sgt. Sal Provenzano with the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center. There were 10-foot seas whipping the ship, which was listed nearly on its side.
A nearby merchant marine vessel was standing by to take any crew member who couldn't fit on the three helicopters, but rescuers decided against conducting more hoist operations to lower the crew members onto the ship in poor weather.
"We made the decision to cram in everybody," Provenzano said.
One crew member with a broken ankle is being flown by plane to Anchorage immediately after landing in Adak, Provenzano said. There were no other injuries reported.
It was not immediately known how long the other crew members, who all donned survival suits when the ship started taking on water, would remain on Adak Island.
The Cougar Ace began listing in the turbulent Pacific Ocean late Sunday night, when the crew sent out an SOS.
A Coast Guard plane earlier Monday dropped three life rafts, but roiling waters shoved the rafts underneath the dipping port side of the 654-foot ship. Racing against an increasingly tilting ship, rescuers tossed an additional raft along the higher starboard side, but it was a 150-foot drop to the water and beyond their reach.
The Cougar Ace had been carrying nearly 5,000 cars from Japan to Canada when it began taking on water Sunday night.
A merchant marine ship crew that had been in the area reached the vessel Monday morning. The crew of that ship tried, but failed, to rig a line to the Cougar Ace to keep it from tilting further.
Near the vessel, Coast Guard officers could see a 2-mile oil sheen, though officials said it was difficult to say how much of the ship's 430 metric tons of fuel oil or 112 metric tons of diesel fuel had spilled. The ocean was choppy, with rain squalls and 8- to 10-foot seas reported.
Communications between the crew and Coast Guard became increasingly difficult Monday when the batteries in the crew's handheld radio dimmed, Coast Guard Lt. Mara Booth-Miller said. Crew members had to shout information to the merchant ship, which then relayed messages back and forth to the Coast Guard.
The Singapore-flagged Cougar Ace — owned by Tokyo-based Mitsui O.S.K. Lines — was carrying 4,813 vehicles from Japan to Vancouver, British Columbia, said Greg Beuerman, a spokesman for the ship owner. There were no reports of any cars going overboard. Beuerman said typically vehicles are securely fastened.
It is not yet known what had caused the ship to list. Its crew didn't know where the water was coming in, McKenzie said.
Beside the Coast Guard helicopter, two Pave Hawk helicopters, two refueling planes and a C-130 plane were sent from Kulis Air National Guard Base in Anchorage. Guard crews carried rafts and survival kits, including food, water, flares and radios, said Guard spokeswoman Kalei Brooks.
Early on, the Coast Guard alerted the clinic at the small town of Adak — a former Naval air station on the island of the same name to gear up for treating at least one broken ankle and possible hypothermia cases. Nurse practitioner Michael Terry said residents hustled to set up cots and blankets at the community center, prepare food and coffee, gather donations of warm clothing. The clinic rounded up emergency medics and braced for action.
"We actually were preparing to have an air disaster drill at the airport (Tuesday) so we moved it up a day," Terry said.
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