The front section of an Iranian oil tanker that has been on fire for days off the east China coast has exploded, forcing rescue boats searching for 31 missing sailors to retreat and sparking environmental concerns.
Thirty-two crew members, including 30 Iranians and two Bangladeshis, went missing after the tanker carrying 136,000 tonnes of oil condensate from Iran to South Korea collided with a Hong Kong-registered bulk freighter and caught fire on Saturday in waters about 160 sea miles east of the Yangtze River’s estuary.
Since then, the Panama-registered tanker Sanchi has been ablaze and drifting in the waters between Shanghai and southern Japan.
So far, no survivors from the tanker have been found and only one body has been recovered. All 21 crew members aboard the Chinese ship were rescued.
The front section of the tanker exploded on Wednesday.
“Vessels at the scene have to stop putting out the fire and withdraw back to (a safe distance),” China’s ministry of transport said. “The fire extinguishing operation did not achieve the desired effect,” it said.
China’s largest patrol ship Haixun 01 is fighting the fire after the explosion while organising other vessels to move away, the ministry said.
According to the ministry, Japanese sea police arrived at the scene an hour before the explosion and established contact with Haixun 01.
China’s Ministry of Foreign affairs said on Wednesday that 12 vessels were searching for the missing sailors in the tanker’s vicinity before the explosion, and efforts were continuing to clean up any spilled light crude.
Since the crash, the tanker has been billowing thick plumes of black smoke. Officials worry that the explosion might sink the ship, releasing its 1 million barrels of oil into the water.
The resulting spill would be about three times as big as the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989, one of the worst environmental disasters in history.