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Iranian oil tanker on fire in East China Sea - 32 crew missing

09 January 2018

On January 9, the stricken Iranian tanker Sanchi was still ablaze some 160 nautical miles off China’s coast near Shanghai three days after fire broke out on the vessel after a collision with a grain carrier. Strong winds, high waves and toxic gases are hindering dozens of rescue boats struggling to douse the flames and locate its missing crew.

MV Sanchi ablaze in the East China Sea on December 6 - Image: People's Daily
MV Sanchi ablaze in the East China Sea on December 6 - Image: People's Daily

Concerns are growing that the tanker, which is carrying 136,000 tonnes of highly volatile condensate from Iran to South Korea, may explode and sink, the official China Central Television (CCTV) said. Chinese officials also announced that the body of one of 32 missing crew members was found on the morning of January 8. Two of the crew are Bangladeshi, and the remainder Iranian.

Sanchi, operated by Iran’s largest oil shipping company, National Iranian Tanker Co, collided with the CF Crystal grain bulker in the East China Sea on December 6. The Crystal suffered limited damage and its 21 crew members, all Chinese nationals, were rescued.

Bad weather has made it hard for the rescue crews to get access to the tanker, and toxic gases from the burning condensate pose a major risk. When condensate meets water it evaporates quickly and can cause a large-scale explosion as it reacts with air and turns into a flammable gas, the Chinese transportation ministry said.

Condensate is extremely low in density, highly toxic and much more explosive than normal crude oil, so containing a spill may be difficult, the ministry added.

CCTV showed footage of a flotilla of vessels attempting to douse the flames with water jets as plumes of thick dark smoke continued to billow from the tanker.

China has sent four rescue and three pollution control vessels to the site, South Korea dispatched a ship and a helicopter, while a US Navy military aircraft searched an area of about 3,600 square nautical miles (12,350 sq km) for crew members.

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