x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Burning Iranian oil tanker sinks in Japanese waters

Ship caught fire after collision with cargo shop in the East China Sea on January 6

Iranian oil tanker Sanchi is seen engulfed in fire in the East China Sea on January 13, 2018, a day before it sank. China Daily via Reuters
Iranian oil tanker Sanchi is seen engulfed in fire in the East China Sea on January 13, 2018, a day before it sank. China Daily via Reuters

A burning Iranian oil tanker sank on Sunday with most of its crew still unaccounted for more than a week after it collided with a cargo ship in the East China Sea.

China Central Television said the Sanchi, which had drifted into Japan's exclusive economic zone, "suddenly ignited" around noon, with flames spreading from end to end, before sinking. It showed video of a tower of billowing black smoke and flames on the surface of the water. The ship sank before 5pm, CCTV said.

China's State Oceanic Administration said that because the hull of the ship had detonated, a large amount of oil in surrounding waters was on fire, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

The administration said it would expand the scope of its monitoring and "quickly ascertain the spread and drift of overflowing oil" from the wrecked ship.

The tanker was carrying a cargo of nearly 1 million barrels of condensate, a type of gassy, ultra-light oil that readily evaporates or burns off in a fire, reducing the chance of a major oil spill.

Thirteen ships, including one from South Korea and two from Japan, had been deployed in the rescue and cleanup effort, Intense flames, which was hampered by bad weather and poor visibility have all hampered rescue efforts. The bodies of only three crew members have been recovered.

The Panamanian-registered tanker had 32 Iranians and two Bangladeshi aboard when it collided with the Chinese freighter CF Crystal on January 6. All 21 of the cargo ship's crew were reported safe.

The body of a mariner suspected to be from the ship was recovered on Monday and sent to Shanghai for identification. A Chinese salvage team recovered two bodies from the deck of the tanker on Saturday. The four team members tried to get to the ship's living quarters but were driven back by temperatures on the burning ship of around 89 degrees Celsius, Xinhua said.

The salvage team also recovered the voyage data recorder, or black box, from the bridge, before leaving the vessel less than half an hour after boarding because the wind had shifted and "thick toxic smoke" had complicated the operation.