Workers begin to raise derelict Tacoma ship Helena Star

Staff writerDecember 5, 2013 

A crane with enough muscle to lift up to 700 tons pulled a sunken freighter to the surface of the Hylebos Waterway on Thursday, then set it back on the bottom again.

It’s part of the painstaking process of ridding the Tacoma waterway of the Helena Star, a 167-foot ship that sank in January. Crews resume work Friday with the goal of raising the ship and eventually towing it to Seattle to be dismantled.

“With a vessel that old and in that condition, they felt it was best to put it back down and take a look at it,” said Toni Droscher, spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural Resources’ aquatic division.

Crews pulled the ship from its side onto its keel Thursday as they raised it for a first look. That allows divers to more fully inspect the righted vessel on the bottom.

It was the latest stage of a recovery process that started right after the January sinking with the containment of about 600 gallons of oil and continued in October with the removal of another vessel, the Golden West, that had been tangled with the Helena Star.

Before going down to its doom, the Helena Star performed a starring role in a criminal enterprise.

The 1940s-era ship was already aging in 1978 when a Coast Guard cutter intercepted it off the coast of Washington, seizing the ship and its cargo: bales of marijuana valued at $74 million, according to News Tribune archives. It was the biggest local pot bust to that point.

That’s how the Helena Star came to Seattle. New owners moved it to Tacoma in 2011, the Department of Ecology said.

But the ownership of the vessel has proved complicated for authorities to settle.

When the state issued orders to remove the sunken ship, it named a series of people and companies connected with the boat.

It’s a common problem with derelict vessels, Droscher said. “There can sometimes be a deal made on a handshake but that doesn’t mean it’s legal, legally binding,” she said.

Natural Resources took custody of the ship after no one claimed it. “We will try our best to recoup our costs,” Droscher said.

Raising and dismantling the ship is expected to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, she said. Federal oil-spill money and special funding approved by the Legislature after the spill is paying for the operation.

Exactly how much it costs will depend on what’s found when the ship is examined at Stabbert Yacht and Ship near the Ballard Locks, where it is to be broken apart and disposed of. “There’s also the possibility with a boat that age that there could be asbestos or PCBs or lead,” Droscher said.

The sinking of the vessel is still being investigated, U.S. Coast Guard petty officer third class Jordan Akiyama said.

“We don’t have a clear idea of what caused it to sink in the first place,” he said.

The freighter was on a state watch list for several years, but money to remove it was lacking.

The state has whittled down its list of derelict boats, but it still contains about 160 vessels.

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