The long, lonely voyage of the Japanese ghost ship is over. A US Coast Guard cutter unleashed cannon fire on the abandoned 50m Ryou-Un Maru on Thursday, ending a journey that began when last year’s tsunami dislodged it and set it adrift across the Pacific Ocean.
It sank into waters more than 300m deep in the Gulf of Alaska, more than 240km from land.
The crew pummeled the ghost ship with high-explosive ammunition and, soon after, the Ryou-Un Maru burst into flames, began to take on water and list, officials said.
A huge column of smoke could be seen over the gulf.
The coast guard warned mariners to stay away, and aviation authorities did the same for pilots. A coast guard C-130 plane crew monitored the operation.
In about four hours, the ship vanished into the water, Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow in Juneau said.
Officials decided to sink the ship, rather than risk the chance of it running aground or endangering other vessels in the busy shipping lanes between North America and Asia.
The ship had no lights or communications system and its tank was able to carry more than 2,000 gallons (7,571 liters) of diesel fuel. However, officials didn’t know how much fuel, if any, was aboard.
“It’s less risky than it would be running into shore or running into [maritime] traffic,” US Coast Guard spokesman Paul Webb said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency studied the problem and decided it is safer to sink the ship and let the fuel evaporate in the open water.
The ship was at Hokkaido, Japan, and destined for scrapping when a magnitude 9 earthquake that struck the country in March last year triggered a tsunami.
The waves dislodged the vessel and set it adrift. In total, about 4.5 million tonnes of debris were swept out to sea.
The boat did not have any cargo aboard, Webb said. He said he didn’t know who owned the Ryou-Un Maru, which had been traveling about 1.6kph in recent days.
As the coast guard was readying to fire on the vessel, a Canadian fishing vessel, the 18.9m Bernice C, claimed salvage rights over the ghost ship.
Plans to sink it were halted so the Canadian crew could have a chance to take the stricken ship. A Canadian official with knowledge of the situation said that the Bernice C was unable to tow it.
When the boat left the area, the coast guard began to fire, first with 25mm shells, then a few hours later with ammunition twice that size.
In the year since the tsunami, the debris from Japan has washed up on shores across the Pacific.