The U.S. Navy has joined the search for the crew of an oil tanker that was set ablaze after colliding with a cargo ship of the coast of China, leaving at least 32 people missing, most of them Iranians.
The U.S. Navy on January 8 sent a P-8A aircraft from Okinawa, Japan, to join ships and craft from China and South Korea in the search for the missing crew of the Panamanian-flagged oil tanker Sanchi off the Chinese coast.
The Chinese Transport Ministry said on January 7 that the crew of 30 Iranians and two Bangladeshis went missing after the collision set the 274-meter oil tanker on fire late the night before.
The tanker collided with the Hong Kong-registered CF Crystal about 300 kilometers off China's coast near Shanghai and the mouth of the Yangtze River Delta.
The ministry said all 21 Chinese crew members were rescued from the damaged CF Crystal, which was carrying 64,000 tons of grain from the United States to southern China.
The Sanchi was carrying 136,000 tons of Iranian oil condensate, which is equivalent to nearly 1 million barrels, worth about $60 million.
The Sanchi "is floating and burning as of now," the Chinese ministry said. "There is an oil slick and we are pushing forward with rescue efforts."
The Associated Press news agency quoted an unidentified official in Iran's Oil Ministry as confirming that 30 of the tanker's crew members were Iranians.
"We have no information on their fate," he said.
Mohammad Rastad, head of Iran's Ports and Maritime Organization, said that poor weather and huge plumes of smoke rising from the tanker were making rescue efforts difficult.
"There is a wide perimeter of flames around the vessel because of the spillage and search-and-rescue efforts are being carried out with difficulty," Rastad told Iranian television.
"This is a big spill," oceanographer Simon Boxall of the University of Southampton told the BBC.
"The only positive side is that, at the moment, the winds are keeping the oil offshore," Boxall added.
"The chances of it reaching the shore are fairly slim. But we are looking at a lot of oil here and the water depth in that area is only about 50 meters to 60 meters, so in the immediate area it will have a dramatic impact."
The Sanchi was heading to South Korea with its cargo when the collision took place.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the cause of the incident was under investigation.
China’s Xinhua news agency said eight Chinese ships were dispatched in a search-and-rescue operation and that South Korea also sent a search aircraft and coastguard ship.
The Sanchi was built in 2008 and its registered owner is Hong Kong-based Bright Shipping Ltd. on behalf of the National Iranian Tanker Co. (NITC), according to the UN-run International Maritime Organization.
According to Reuters' ship-tracking data, the oil tanker was sailing from Kharg Island in Iran to Daesan, South Korea.
The Shanghai Maritime Bureau said the accident did not affect traffic into and out of Shanghai, one of the world's busiest and biggest ports, or ports along the Yangtze River.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and the BBC