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Wednesday, February 28, 2024


Aug. 8, 2001 – Last Saturday, a tugboat towed a rust-encrusted container ship out to sea from St. Thomas's Krum Bay. It was a calm kind of closure for the 411-foot-long vessel that over nearly a dozen years had been mired in mud, accusations and legal maneuvering.
In 1989, during Hurricane Hugo, the Panamanian-flagged ship Marlago was run aground in Krum Bay, where it was left for dead, semi-submerged on its side. Finally, last May, the vessel was refloated, renamed Mar I, and claimed by right of salvage by Antilles Marine Services.
On Saturday, towed by the tugboat WITtug, the Mar I left Krum Bay bound for the Dominican Republic, where officials say it will probably be converted into a deck barge. Jane and Jerry Immel aboard their own 96-foot tugboat Lady Salvor assisted the WITtug during final departure maneuvers, then escorted the two vessels three miles out to sea. A U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary vessel with Lt. John Reinert, USCG St. Thomas Unit supervisor, aboard saw the Mar I safely out of USVI waters — 12 miles from shore because of the ship's foreign registry.
Behind that escorted exit lies quite a story.
In the 1980s, the Marlago transported containers between Miami and St. Thomas, according to James Oelsner, past president of West Indies Transport, which represented commercial cargo vessels locally for more than 30 years. It was commonly referred to as a "ro-ro" because its specialized stern cargo ramp, 90-foot height and 62-foot beam accommodated the "rolling on and rolling off of shipping containers and trailers," Oelsner explained.
The vessel "caught fire in 1987 and was towed into Krum Bay," Oelsner recalled. "She sat there until Hugo came along." Then, he said, the ship was "put down" — that is, intentionally sunk — to avoid its breaking loose and becoming a threat during the storm. "The hurricane scoured her and caused her to take a 12-degree list to starboard, flooded her engine room and made her a wreck." he remembered.
The courts eventually held Oelsner responsible for eight ships wrecked off St. Thomas during Hugo's rampage. "I was convicted of 16 environmental and immigration crimes here in 1996. They sent me to prison for three years," he said. He maintains his innocence on all counts.
"I'm still fighting the case," he said this week. "I hope to overturn it. I've already served the time." He added, "The restitution involved in that case was the removal of these eight Hurricane Hugo wrecks."
Antilles Marine Services Co. appointed him the salvage master to remove the wrecks at the request of the U.S. District Court, Oelsner said, and "I'm not being paid for it." He said the Marlago is the largest of the seven wrecked vessels removed so far." The last he has agreed to remove is the 160-foot barge WITdock, from the rocks at Regis Point. He says the cost of removing all eight will total about $125,000.
Over the years, local and regional government agencies sought to deal with the fact that Marlago represented an environmental and navigational hazard in Krum Bay.
In May 1998, U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Brian Salerno presented a status report on the Marlago to the biannual meeting of the Coast Guard's Caribbean Regional Response Team. He noted that the Marine Safety Office in San Juan had given Oelsner, as owner, permission to refloat the vessel, with conditions the Marine Safety Office had determined in consultation with the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, the Planning and Natural Resources Department and the Water and Power Authority.
According to minutes of that meeting, Salerno commented that if Oelsner did not meet those conditions, the Coast Guard would tap into the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund and do it. The primary concerns of the response team were that the vessel needed to be raised in order to remove the oil aboard, which posed a pollution threat, and then salvaged, as it was obstructing a shipping channel. It was suggested at the meeting that if the owner failed to act promptly in these regards, a federal court order be sought directing the Coast Guard to remove the oil and the Army Corps of Engineers to salvage and remove the vessel.
"The first five or six years, we had a lot of trouble getting the Coast Guard to allow us to go ahead" with the salvage, Oelsner said. "But, then, recently they turned around completely and were very cooperative."
He said Coast Guard personnel "who assisted us this time were very cooperative" and that there was "no oil pollution" as the Marlago was removed. He credited Lt. Kevin Smith, the St. Thomas Coast Guard Unit supervisor until his recent reassignment, and Smith's replacement, Lt. Reinert, for their assistance.
Reinert told the Source, "We were very pleased with the results. There were no problems and no pollution. We had inspected the Mar I every step of the way to make sure that there were no problems." He added, "I'd like to thank the many local government agencies for their cooperation in this 11-year process."

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