By Lt. Cmdr. Keith Dowling, Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Executive Officer
The “Heavy Lifters” of Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit (MDSU) 1 responded to a request Jan. 19 from the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) to provide assistance to the Chinese-flagged motor vessel (M/V) Tong Cheng when it reported hull damage and progressive flooding.
According to Tong Cheng's initial report, the ship had sustained hull damage, and that the condition had progressed to a point where the ship and her 26 crew were in jeopardy. The Tong Cheng also reported that she was carrying a load of over 140,000 gallons of petroleum products that if released had the potential to cause damage to Hawaiian waters.
Navy Divers from MDSU 1, with the help of translators, completed an open ocean, underwater hull survey. The survey team conducted a thorough inspection of the ship's hull and identified several large cracks. The team then developed a plan for a temporary patch using a two-part epoxy and after four hours of cure time, returned to find the patch intact and holding.
"The two-part epoxy was the only option available and while [we were] optimistic, we were also skeptical that the patch would hold during Tong Cheng's 80 nautical mile transit to anchorage," said Navy Diver 1st Class Jason Mette, a dive team member.
After applying the temporary patch, MDSU 1 divers turned their efforts towards stabilizing the ship. They began assisting the USCG Strike Team with dewatering operations.
When the Tong Cheng's installed pumps became inoperable, and due to limited options for access to the effected cargo hold, MDSU 1 deployed a surface supplied dive team that embarked an ocean barge and completed the staggered installation of HOT TAPs (underwater flange and valve assemblies) at 14, 21, and 28 feet below the waterline used to dewater the ship.
"The installation of HOT TAP flanges and valves on a moving ship was a unique challenge, but we were able to overcome this by rehearsing the procedure topside," said Navy Diver 2nd Class Shawn Gerasimchik, who assisted in the HOT TAP installation.
MDSU 1 continued to dewater the ship, removing in excess of 210,000 gallons of fuel-contaminated water and restoring the ship's draft to 35 feet, the minimum required for safe entry into Barber's Point Harbor where permanent repairs could be made.
In a message from the U.S. Coast Guard, District 14 Commander Rear Adm. Brice-O’Hara commended MDSU 1 for their professionalism in providing essential underwater inspection, assessment and temporary repairs to the cracked hull of M/V Tong Cheng, and recognized MDSU 1's assistance as part of a team effort that prevented the ship’s sinking, ensured the safety of its 26 crew members, mitigated the pollution potential of a catastrophic oil spill in the waters of Hawaii and contributing to the bank of goodwill between the United States and the People's Republic of China.
MDSU 1 is an expeditionary diving and salvage command that belongs to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 1, and is part of Commander, Naval Expeditionary Combat Command.