Co-authored by Petty Officer 2nd Class Jaclyn Young.
It’s been four days and nine hours since the fishing vessel Lili’afao sank at its mooring in Pago Pago Harbor, and the Coast Guard responders on scene have grown indifferent to the rain showers that are common in American Samoa. They wipe their faces with wet sleeves, to no avail, and continue their work in spite of the warm, South Pacific rain.
Although the daily rain showers don’t usually impact life in American Samoa, an unusual near-constant downpour for two weeks contributed to the sinking of the Lili’afao, an 80-foot, Mexican-flagged vessel with an unknown amount of No. 2 diesel fuel and oil on board.
Amongst the responders was Petty Officer 1st Class Russell Strathern, stationed at Sector Honlulu. Controlling the threat of pollution and preparing the derelict vessel for salvage was no easy task, and the small three-person team at Coast Guard Marine Safety Detachment American Samoa called for assistance.
“This spill was different for us,” said Lt. Steve Caskey of the marine safety detachment. “Usually whenever it rains it comes down from rivers and washes into the harbor, and we get mystery sheens. When this boat sank it had rained for almost two weeks straight.”
Strathern, with two others from Honolulu, traveled down to the end of time on the International Date Line to assist with the vessel, resting on the bottom of the harbor.
The first day of his response, Strathern and his peer from Honolulu Petty Officer 1st Class David Tonon, worked with the contractors to assess the ship’s damage and formulate a salvage plan for the following day. With just a few air pockets keeping parts of the hull above water, it was critical that every move had a purpose and would not cause further damage.
A salvage job in the continental U.S. typically has the luxury of using vacuum trucks, response boats, containment boom and oil spill removal organizations, all at the responder’s fingertips, said Caskey.
However, American Samoa is a small island located so far away from any other U.S. state that resource availability is minimal.
But rain and lack of resources did not slow the response. It took some ingenuity from Strathern and his fellow responders, careful planning and a whole lot of focus on safety to get the job done.
“The rain didn’t stop any work; we just keep on with operations, with safety as the highest priority,” said Strathern.
With the overall goal to safely stabilize the condition of the vessel and remove the threat of pollution to the navigable waterway, responders worked tirelessly to ensure American Samoa’s beauty would remain that way.
“The state of the vessel when we arrived had the potential of fully capsizing,” said Strathern. “If it weren’t for all of the expertise provided and great team work from everyone, all pollutants could have spilled in the water and the vessel could have become a serious hazard to the boating community and marine wildlife.”
The vessel was raised six days into the response allowing responders to move freely among compartments and identify areas where fuel and oil remained.
“I think we did extremely well mitigating the threat and minimizing the discharge,” said Strathern. “We had zero injuries, and the negative impact to the harbor was small, but the best part about this response was the willingness and positive attitude of all parties involved.”
Through the leadership of Strathern and his team, Lili’afao was removed as a safety hazard and caused minimal environmental damage.
The mission was a success and it was time for the responders to head home. But for Strathern, the mission wasn’t just a success. It was an experience that produced an unbreakable bond.
“By the end of the response, the responders and Coast Guard involved had sweat, bled and laughed our way into bonds far surpassing those of responses I have been engaged with in the past,” said Strathern. “The true beauty of American Samoa is the people.”