Black box recovered from fire-stricken ship sinking off Sri Lanka

The authorities say the data recorder will be handed over to local law enforcement agencies investigating the fire.

Smoke rises from a fire onboard the MV X-Press Pearl vessel as it sinks [File:Reuters]
Smoke rises from a fire onboard the MV X-Press Pearl vessel as it sinks [File:Reuters]

Experts have recovered the data recorder belonging to a fire-ravaged ship carrying chemicals that is slowly sinking off Sri Lanka’s capital, officials said on Sunday, as investigators probe what caused the fire.

The Singapore-flagged MV X-Press Pearl started sinking on Wednesday, a day after authorities extinguished a fire that raged on board for 13 days. Efforts to tow the ship into deeper waters away from the port in Colombo had failed after the ship’s stern sank to rest on the seabed.

The Voyage Data Recorder (VDR), also known as a “maritime black box”, enables investigators to review procedures and instructions ahead of an accident.

“The navy facilitated technicians to remove the VDR from the bridge, which is still above the waterline,” navy spokesman Indika de Silva told AFP.

Sri Lankan authorities said they hope it will provide details of the ship’s movements and its communications with the harbour in Colombo, where it had been due to dock. The VDR will be handed over to local law enforcement agencies investigating the fire.

Both the authority and the ship’s operator said the vessel’s aft portion remains on the seabed at a depth of about 21 metres (70 feet), and the forward section is sinking slowly as well.

Operator X-Press Feeders has apologised for the disaster and said salvagers remain on the scene to deal with any possible spills.

The port authority and the operator said there were no signs of oil or chemical spills. They said that Sri Lanka’s navy, Indian coastguard, salvage crews and local authorities were capable of responding to any signs of oil pollution or debris, and were monitoring the situation around the clock.

The fire has destroyed most of the ship’s cargo, which included 25 tonnes of nitric acid and other chemicals. But there are fears that the remaining chemicals, as well as hundreds of tonnes of oil from the fuel tanks, could leak into the sea.

Such a disaster would devastate marine life and further pollute the island nation’s famed beaches. The disaster has already caused debris – including several tonnes of plastic pellets used to make plastic bags – to wash ashore. The government has banned fishing along about 80 kilometres (50 miles) of coastline.

Officials say there had been about 300 tonnes of oil on board and that experts believe it could have burned off in the fire.

A ship manifest seen by The Associated Press described the X-Press Pearl as carrying just under 1,500 containers, with 81 of those containers described as “dangerous” goods.

Environmentalist have warned that there is the potential for “a terrible environmental disaster” as hazardous goods, plastics, chemicals and oil could be released into the water and destroy marine ecological systems.

The fire erupted on May 20 when the ship was anchored about 9.5 nautical miles (18 kilometres) northwest of Colombo and waiting to enter the port. The navy believes the blaze was caused by the vessel’s chemical cargo, which it was carrying from the port of Hazira in India.

The MV X-Press Pearl had left Hazira on May 15 and was on its way to Singapore via Colombo.

Source: News Agencies

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