Salvage crews work to avoid major oil spill



GALVESTON, Texas (AP)—Salvage crews scrambled Sunday aboard a gasoline tanker ripped open by an explosion that peeled back part of the deck ‘‘like a sardine can.’‘ Three people were believed killed.

The Coast Guard strung containment booms in case of a possible fuel spill from the damaged OMI Charger, which was carrying no cargo but held 365,000 gallons of fuel.

‘‘There is a potential for a major spill,’‘ said Capt. Paul Prokop, commander of the Coast Guard station at Galveston.

The Houston Ship channel, one of the world’s busiest waterways, was closed part of the day because officials feared ship wakes could endanger the tanker. Officials later allowed restricted use of the channel, which serves the Houston petrochemical industry, and reopened it Sunday evening.

Coast Guard officials said they were convinced none of the fuel had spilled from the 660-foot ship. It was partially afloat in about 40 feet of water.

Crews planned to remove the fuel and booms were set as a precaution around the ship and along wetlands on the Galveston shoreline, about 50 miles southeast of Houston.

Witnesses said the ship was hit by two explosions Saturday. The first blast around 8 p.m. was felt more than four miles away, while a less intense explosion occurred about an hour later. The fire burned out of control for some 5^4 hours.

Two men were confirmed killed and one other was missing and presumed dead. Three of the 35 crew members remained hospitalized Sunday, one in serious condition. About a dozen others were treated and released.

The blasts opened a gaping hole along the left side of the ship, exposing its interior. Pipelines on the deck were twisted like blackened spaghetti.

Part of the main deck was ‘‘peeled back like a sardine can,’‘ said Coast Guard Cmdr. Roger Peoples, who flew over the wreck Sunday. The ship’s stern had sunk to the channel bottom and it listed to port, but Peoples said it was in no danger of sinking.

Twenty-seven crew members were rescued from the burning ship minutes after the blast by the crew of a passing oil rig supply boat.

But Allen LeBlanc, the 54-year-old captain of the supply boat, said he and his crew are no heroes, only a bunch of Cajuns who did the right thing.

‘‘You try to help the other guy, ’cause you never know. One day it might be you,‘’ LeBlanc, of Abbeville, La., said Sunday.

Owners of the ship and the Coast Guard would not say what caused the blasts.

‘‘It’s too early to speculate,’‘ Peoples said.

Authorities said, however, that a couple of workers were welding inside the ship at the time of the blast. And Peoples said hydraulics systems also were suspected.

Joe Raia, an assistant manager for New York-based OMI Corp., said eight contract workers were among the crew, including the two welders. He said they often worked aboard the ship and followed OMI safety standards.

OMI President Jack Goldstein said the ship, built in 1969 and refurbished in 1989, was at anchor at the time of the blast and fire. It was returning from an Amoco Oil Co. terminal at Tampa, Fla., and was to head to an Amoco refinery in nearby Texas City.

Goldstein estimated the insured ship was worth about $10 million.

It was the worst shipping accident in the area since the Norwegian tanker Mega Borg spilled 4.3 million gallons of crude oil about 60 miles off Galveston in June 1990.