A 224-foot-long U.S. warship will have to be cut into smaller pieces to get it off a Philippine reef where it grounded two weeks ago, Navy officials said Wednesday.
They said that's the only way to prevent further damage to the Tubbataha Reef, a Philippine national park and UNESCO World Heritage site, where the USS Guardian, an Avenger-class mine countermeasures ship, ran aground on January 17.
Lt. Anthony Falvo, a U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet spokesman in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, told CNN on Wednesday that Navy salvage experts are still formulating the details of how they'll cut up the 1,312-ton minesweeper.
Crews are now working to remove any hazardous materials from the vessel and will look to save anything that could still prove useful to the Navy. The ship's 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel were removed last week.
"We will strip it out beforehand. We'll work to salvage any parts that can be salvaged," Falvo said. Then the cutting will begin.
Heavy-lift cranes are expected at the site of the grounding, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) east-southeast of Palawan Island in the Sulu Sea, in the next few days, Falvo said. The cranes will lift the pieces of the Guardian onto barges or other ships to be taken away.
Last week, the Navy said it hoped to lift the ship off the reef in its entirety. But Falvo said Wednesday that after reviewing all the alternatives, it was decided it would have to be cut up.
After it struck the reef, initial efforts to free the Guardian at high tide were unsuccessful. Its crew of 79 was evacuated to other vessels, and the ship was battered by waves that pushed it farther onto the reef, causing leaks in its wood-and-fiberglass hull.
"The ship cannot move on its own, and it is not operational," Rear Adm. Tom Carney said last week.
Stripping, cutting up and removing the Guardian from the reef could take more than a month, Falvo said Wednesday.
This isn't the first time the Navy has had to undertake such an operation, but it hasn't happened in more than 40 years. In August 1971, the supply ship USS Regulus grounded in Hong Kong harbor during Typhoon Rose, Falvo said. It took more than a month to cut that vessel up and remove it, he said. A similar operation was also conducted in 1916, he said.
As for what the loss of the Guardian, one of 14 Avenger class mine countermeasures ships in the Navy, means for the service, Falvo said it was too early to speculate. He pointed out that the vessel was in the 23rd year of its expected 30-year lifespan.
The ship cost about $61 million to build, Lt. Cmdr. James Stockman, a Navy spokesman, said last week.
As for other costs, Philippine officials said last week that the Philippines would seek compensation for damage to the reef. About 1,000 square meters (about 10,760 square feet) of it have been damaged.
"It's a damage to a world heritage site. It's a damage to our natural resources. It's a damage to an important site. We cannot but put emphasis on the importance of this reef as a heritage site," presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said.
The reef is home to a vast array of sea, air and land creatures, as well as sizable lagoons and two coral islands. About 500 species of fish and 350 species of coral can be found there, as can whales, dolphins, sharks, turtles and breeding seabirds, according to UNESCO.
The salvage operation must ensure that the reef sustains no further damage, Lacierda said.
Navy officials are still trying to determine how the Guardian ended up on the reef.
Stockman, the Navy spokesman, said last week that the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which prepares the digital navigation charts used by the Navy, has reported the location of the reef was misplaced on a chart by nine miles.
"The U.S. Navy investigation will review what charts Guardian was using. While this erroneous navigation chart data is important information, no one should jump to conclusions," Stockman said. "It is critical that the U.S. Navy conduct a comprehensive investigation that assesses all the facts and circumstances surrounding the Guardian grounding."