Valuable reminder lost in removal of “New Carissa” wreck

The New Carissa was a wood-chip freighter that ran aground on the Oregon coast during a storm in February 1999. Initial efforts to refloat and tow the ship back out to sea failed. As cracks developed in the hull, fuel oil began leaking out, and to avert an environmental disaster, officials decided to try burning off the several hundred thousand gallons of remaining fuel.

It is at this point that the tale of the New Carissa takes on an uncanny resemblance to the Exploding Whale. Officials decided to use over 600 gallons of napalm, 39 shaped charges, nearly 400 pounds of plastic explosives, and other incendiary devices to set the fuel ablaze. It took several attempts, but after 33 hours, between 165,000 and 255,000 gallons had burned off. Despite this, anywhere from 25,000 to 140,000 gallons of fuel oil and diesel are believed to have leaked out. In addition, the explosions and heat from the fire further compromised the structural integrity of the ship, eventually causing it to break into two pieces.

The bow section was towed away by a tug boat. However, en route it broke free and ran aground again about 80 miles north of the original site. A week later, it was refloated, towed 248 miles off the coast and sunk — using more explosives, artillery fire, and a torpedo — in 10,000 feet of water.

The stern section became embedded in the sand and remained there for almost 10 years.

Over the past several months, a Florida marine salvage company, Titan Salvage, has been carrying out an intricate and fascinating exhumation and dismantling of the New Carissa’s 90-foot, 1,200-ton stern. Using a series of barges, jacks, pullers, cranes, and a cable car to ferry crew and supplies between the beach and the work platform, the company has systematically cut up and removed all but the most deeply embedded parts of the stern.

From day one, the parallels between the New Carissa and the Exploding Whale were evident to me. For a long time, I’ve planned to add a page to featuring the New Carissa. I have an archive of photos and videos from 1999 just waiting to be reappear on the web. And today, an article in the Register-Guard describing the final stages of the salvage made an explicit comparison to the Exploding Whale (emphasis is mine):

This week brings closure to a long, sordid saga of the Oregon Coast that will live on for decades, the same way Florence’s infamous exploding whale has endured 30 years after state transportation officials hatched an ill-conceived plot to dispose of a beached mammal by stuffing it with dynamite.

The New Carissa’s story is rife with similar industry bravado and government folly, made all the more embarrassing in hindsight by considering that the same company that successfully dispatched the ship this summer submitted a nearly identical version of its plan shortly after the ship ran aground on Feb. 4, 1999, and leaked 70,000 of oil and diesel fuel onto the beach.

After failed attempts to refloat the wreck, the group tasked with solving the New Carissa problem decided to set the fuel tanks on fire with napalm to burn off leaking oil, which weakened the hull such that it broke in half.

The bow section was towed to sea that March but the stern was more stubborn and stuck around.

Titan submitted a bid to cut the remaining half of the ship apart, but the state went with a different company that suggested an ultimately unsuccessful tow effort and agreed to a lump-sum payment. Titan wanted to be paid by the day, Reed said, but that made the total price tag hard to ascertain.

“Our plan back then was pretty much exactly what was done this time,” Reed said. “When the state came to us, we basically just dusted off our old plan.”

Eight years later, the ship is finally gone — almost.

Like the Exploding Whale, a small part of the New Carissa went up in smoke, but what was left behind just reminded us fallible humans of our mistakes and limitations. The remains of the whale were buried on the beach later in the day on November 12, 1970, so that they would be forgotten. And while the timeless sands of the Oregon coast nearly succeeded in erasing the Exploding Whale from our history, they could not cover and consume the massive hulk that was the stern of the New Carissa. No, that whale of a disaster could not simply be buried. Rather, it forced us as humans to face our failure in a more direct way — and in some ways, actually overcome it.

The redemptive aspect to the story of the New Carissa does not exist with the Exploding Whale. Here, we see human ingenuity and determination on bold display. But, in my opinion, that redemption is tainted by its origin in the overwhelming desire to hide — no, literally erase — the failure that was the New Carissa.

With the Exploding Whale, there was little harm done (i.e., a single car got smashed by a big chunk of flying whale). The subsequent attempt to bury it in the sands of history had few real consequences. And when the story resurfaced on the internet decades later, it was seen for what it was.

But the New Carissa truly had the potential to cause massive environmental damage along the Oregon coast. (While it did do significant damage, with more than 80 percent of the oil burned off, a much larger catastrophe was clearly averted.) We really lucked out! Yet, the need to remove the unsightly source of embarrassment persisted — and triumphed. Had the remaining fuel been pumped out and the carcass of the New Carissa been allowed to remain, it could have served as an effective reminder for decades to come.

Would it not have been better to be reminded of our good fortune and our imperative to prevent a similar event in the future than to satisfy the human ego and attempt to remove the scars of our transgressions?

Now, I understand that there are real arguments for removing the wreck: it’s an eyesore or a hazard or a legal liability to the state; if the state doesn’t remove it, it would undermine the trespass argument used in court; etc. And in the end, the Oregon coast is probably better off without the New Carissa (even though shipwrecks are an undeniable part of that area’s history). Still, I can’t help but to think that by removing it, we risk forgetting what happened and that which could happen again.

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