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Bulk carrier sinks off S.Africa, 26 missing

Written by: Staff

JOHANNESBURG, May 4 (Reuters) Rescue teams braved ferocious winds today searching for 26 crew members missing after a bulk carrier ferrying iron ore sank in rough seas off South Africa's eastern coast.

Six of 33 crew members on the Greek-owned Alexandros T were rescued on Wednesday night shortly after it was lost off Port Alfred after taking on water in strong winds, rescuers said.

Today rescuers in a South African military plane spotted a seventh man in the water near the scene of the sinking 285 nautical miles offshore and directed a ship to the spot.

''We recovered one more survivor today. He was on a life craft pin-pointed by the South African aircraft from the air,'' Andre Botes, head of the search-and-rescue team told Reuters.

''He is very cold but otherwise unharmed.'' But as the hours stretched amid crashing waves, hopes of saving the remaining 26 seamen turned to despair.

''We still have 26 people out there in the water and that's not a good thing,'' Andre Botes, head of MRCC's rescue team said.

''The problem is hypothermia, by now they must be very weak. We hope to fly the plane again at night to see if any surviving crew will shoot flares,'' he added.

The Alexandros T was transporting 155,000 metric tonnes of iron ore loaded in Brazil and destined for China, a spokesman for its managers said.

''From what we understand, it started to list to one side and started to break up in half before sinking,'' Paul Killeen, deputy sea rescue commander at nearby Port Elizabeth, told Reuters by telephone.

Killeen said there were strong winds when the ship sank at about 10 p.m (0130 hrs IST) Yesterday night.

INSPECTION RECORD Records on the U S Coast Guard's Web site show the ship was held at Norfolk, Virginia, in 2003 for security deficiencies including ''numerous leaking and damaged fire hoses throughout the vessel''.

The Coast Guards requested an external audit.

A statement issued by Lloyd's Register on Thursday said the ship's last special inspection took place the following year.

''To the best of our knowledge, the ship was in compliance with the relevant class and statutory requirements,'' the statement said.

''The ship's last port state control inspection took place in Fremantle in March 2005. There was no detention.'' Nicholas Brown, spokesman for the ship's owners said the company could not comment on the possible cause of the sinking, but an inquiry would be launched after the rescue effort.

Brown said 24 of the crew were Filipino. Others were 4 Greeks, 4 Romanians and a Ukrainian.

The 171,875 dead weight-tonnage vessel was built in 1989 and is registered under the management of Overseas Marine Enterprises Inc in Saint Vincent&The Grenadines, according to Norway-based independent maritime consulting foundation DNV.

Mark Hellenberg, a rescue coordinator with the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), said the Alexandros T had sent a distress signal at around 9 p.m. local time (0030 hrs IST).

A nearby ship, the Fortune Express, was directed to the scene by maritime officials and found the Alexandros T sinking fast and managed to rescue the six crew.

''The rest of the crew appear to have been forced into the sea,'' Hellenberg said.

Fierce winds and turbulent seas were still a major obstacle to the rescue effort on Thursday. A plane carrying a South African TV news crew to the scene was forced to turn back, an SABC official told Reuters.

A South African military plane was scrambled to the scene to join nearby ships in the rescue effort. A Canadian rescue helicopter in the vicinity was placed on alert.


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