Sat, May 06, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Rescuers search for crew of bulk carrier sunk near S Africa


South African authorities were searching on Thursday for 26 crew members who went missing after a bulk carrier sank off South Africa's notoriously dangerous southeastern coast, rescue workers said.

The Alexandros T, which was sailing from Brazil to China with a load of iron ore, broke up at around 8pm on Wednesday in stormy weather around 300 nautical miles off the east coast harbor city of Port Elizabeth.

It sank with 33 crew members -- including four Greek citizens -- on board in heavy winds and swells of up to 5m.

South African Maritime Search and Rescue chief Andre Botes told reporters that apart from six crew members rescued overnight, one other sailor was plucked from a dinghy on Thursday morning.

"Another person was rescued off a life raft earlier this morning, so 26 crew members still remain missing," Botes said.

By late Thursday afternoon concerns were growing for the men's safety after a ship found around four life rafts in the area -- all of them empty.

"It is worrying. It means that the other 26 are all in the water," Botes said.

"The water temperature is around 18?C and their chance of survival is pretty good, but they will suffer from hypothermia by now and may be unable to attract the searchers' attention," he said.

National Sea Rescue Institute spokesman Craig Lambinon said the missing men wore life jackets at the time the ship sank.

"As far as we know only five crew members made it into a life raft. They were rescued together with another crew member floating in the water," Lambinon told reporters before the latest sailor was rescued.

Lambinon said the St Vincent and Grenadines-registered and Greek-operated carrier, with a gross tonnage of 91,164, sent out a distress call at around 4pm on Wednesday saying it was taking on water in the heavy swells.

"Several vessels in the area then sailed to the scene including the ship Fortune Express, which is looking for the survivors," he said.

An air force C-130 Hercules search plane that overflew the site spotted some five life rafts in the water, air force spokesman Ronald Maseko said, but when the Fortune Express investigated, the life rafts were empty.

"Our plane will continue to fly into the night for as long as possible to look out for flares from the survivors," Maseko said.

"The area where the ship sank is too far for our helicopters to reach, but we will drop more dinghies if we spot somebody in the water," he added.

Conditions have improved, Botes said, with the wind dropping from a raging 40 knots last night to 11 knots this morning.

He said more ships were en route to help in the rescue operation including the Chinese carrier Fu Le, which arrived on the scene at 2pm.

Four of the sailors are Greek, including the captain, his second-in-command and two mechanics, according to a statement.

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