Ships, copters fighting fire as tanker drifts near Sri Lanka

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Ships, boats and aircraft from Sri Lanka and India were escalating efforts to douse an oil tanker fire burning for a second day Friday as officials warned of potentially huge environment damage on Sri Lanka's coast if the ship leaked or exploded.

The tanker was drifting and could reach the coast of the Indian Ocean island nation within 38 hours, Terney Pradeep, general manager of the Sri Lanka Marine Environment Protection Authority, said on state television. That would be about late Saturday local time.

The fire has not spread into the tanker's oil storage area and no leak was reported, according to Sri Lanka's navy, but the environmental official warned of the potential damage if a leak or explosion occurred.

“The damage could rise further if the ship explodes due to the fire. If that happens, there could be a huge damage,” Terney said in the telecasted statement.

The MT New Diamond was about 38 nautical miles (70 kilometers) east of Sri Lanka when the fire started Thursday in an engine room boiler. One crew member was injured in the fire, and another first described as missing was later confirmed to have died in a boiler explosion.

Terney said the ship now is drifting toward the coast at a speed of 0.7 nautical miles per hour. "If an oil spill happens after it reaches near the coast, there could be a huge damage on the beach.”

The Sri Lankan navy sent four ships in response to the fire alarm Thursday, and other ships and aircraft from Sri Lanka and India have joined the firefighting efforts. The other 21 crew left the tanker uninjured as the fire burned.

A Sri Lankan air force helicopter was picking up seawater in a bucket then flying back to dump the water on the burning tanker, air force spokesman Group Capt. Dushantha Wijensinghe said. The air force also was flying an observation aircraft to provide feedback to the authorities.

“The fire is still raging there,” Sri Lankan navy spokesman Indika Silva said Friday morning, adding it hasn't spread into the oil storage area of the ship and no oil leakage has been reported.

The tanker's 23 crew are 18 Filipinos and five Greeks. The dead and injured crew are both Filipino.

The dead crew member was initially reported as missing and on Friday, Sri Lanka navy said preliminary information from crew had confirmed that the missing crew member had died “in a boiler explosion.”

The tanker's third engineer was hospitalized with injuries. His condition is returning to stable, Silva said.

The tanker was carrying 270,000 metric tons of crude oil from the port of Mina Al Ahmadi in Kuwait to the Indian port of Paradip, where the state-owned Indian Oil Corporation has a refinery.

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