An Iranian crude oil supertanker anchored off Singapore. Picture: REUTERS
An Iranian crude oil supertanker anchored off Singapore. Picture: REUTERS

Beijing/Seoul — Rescue crews were forced to retreat from a stricken Iranian oil tanker in the East China Sea on Wednesday following an explosion on the ship. A fire raged for a fourth day.

The blast happened on board the tanker in the afternoon after rescue crews were dousing the ship with foam in an attempt to put out the fire, China’s transport ministry said on Wednesday.

The cause of the blast and extent of damage to the tanker were not clear.

The ship was carrying condensate, a highly flammable ultralight crude, to deliver to South Korea when it collided with a Chinese freight ship on Saturday about 300km off China’s coast near Shanghai.

Dozens of rescue boats from China and South Korea have been battling strong winds, high waves and poisonous fumes to comb a 3,100km2 area for 31 missing sailors and to tame the fire, amid growing concerns that the listing ship may explode or sink. Iran’s navy joined the effort on Wednesday, a government official said.

The lashing winds were expected to ease on Thursday, the Chinese ministry said.

The tanker Sanchi, run by Iran’s top oil shipping operator, National Iranian Tanker, collided on Saturday with the CF Crystal, carrying grain from the US. The Sanchi was carrying 136,000 tonnes of condensate, equivalent to about 1-million barrels and worth $60m.

The Chinese government said on Tuesday it had not found a "large-scale" oil leak and the condensate was burning off or evaporating so quickly that it would leave little residue — less than 1% — within five hours of a spill. That reduces the chances of a crude-style oil slick.

Officials said there was still a chance of finding survivors among the 31 remaining crew, who are all Iranian nationals except for two Bangladeshi citizens. The body of a crew member was found on Monday in the water near the tanker.

"If the crew have been able to reach some place like the engine room, then the chances of their rescue are high," said Hassan Qashqavi, a senior Iranian foreign ministry official. "But if, God forbid, they have been caught up in explosions because of flames inside the ship, then the chance of their rescue is small."

Authorities and environmentalists worry that the ship is increasingly vulnerable to breaking up and sinking the longer the blaze rages.

Still, the ultralight crude is highly volatile when exposed to air and water.

South Korea’s ministry of oceans and fisheries warned on Wednesday that the tanker could burn for up to a month, potentially expelling the tanker’s bunker fuel and contaminating the waters.

Bunker fuel — the heavy fuel oil that powers a ship’s engines — is the dirtiest kind of oil and is extremely toxic when spilled.


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