Big parts coming off U.S. ship on reef

Wednesday, February 27, 2013 - 9:27am

(CNN) -- Big parts are coming off a former U.S. Navy minesweeper that became stuck on a Philippine reef in January.

Salvage crews have removed the funnel, or smokestack, and mast from the former USS Guardian, the Philippine coast guard reports. The agency posted a series of photos on its website showing large parts of the minesweeper being lifted by a crane and transferred to a barge.

Once the top decks of the ship is cleared and heavy machinery is removed from the inside, the 224-foot-long, fiberglass-and-wood hull of the Guardian is expected to be cut into three parts before it is lifted from the reef.

Salvage efforts are expected to continue through most of March, the U.S. Navy said, but adverse weather could increase the time needed.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy said that the Guardian was decommissioned and stricken from the naval registry on February 15.

Another minesweeper, the USS Warrior, is being moved to the Pacific to replace the Guardian, the Navy said. That vessel, currently in Bahrain, will be ferried by a heavy transport ship to the U.S. naval base in Sasebo, Japan, where the Guardian's crew will take over its operation, according to a Navy statement.

The Guardian grounded on Tubbataha Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage site, on January 17. An investigation of the grounding is ongoing. Navy officials said in January that the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which prepares the digital navigation charts used by the Navy, has reported the location of the reef was misplaced on a chart by nine miles.

The Guardian is estimated to have damaged about 4,000 square meters (about 43,000 square feet) of the reef. The Navy has pledged to clean up the debris created when waves stripped off pieces of fiberglass covering the wooden hull of the ship and to try to restore the reef as much as possible.

Philippine officials said last month that the country would seek compensation for reef damage. Harry K. Thomas Jr., the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, has assured the Filipinos that the United States "will provide appropriate compensation for damage to the reef caused by the ship."

The reef is home to a vast array of sea, air and land creatures as well as sizable lagoons and two coral islands. About 500 species of fish and 350 species of coral can be found there, as can whales, dolphins, sharks, turtles and breeding seabirds, according to UNESCO.

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