A tanker carrying Iranian oil and run by the country's top oil shipping operator was ablaze and spewing cargo into the East China Sea on Sunday after colliding with a Chinese bulk ship, leaving its 32 crew members missing, the Chinese government said.
Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that the cause of the accident is still under investigation.
The Sanchi was carrying 136,000 tonnes or almost 1 million barrels of condensate from Iran to South Korea when it crashed against the Hong Kong-registered freighter CF Crystal, carrying grain from the US.
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The collision occurred around 8 p.m. Saturday in waters about 160 nautical miles east of the Yangtze River estuary. Authorities have confirmed that the people missing are all from the oil tanker.
The U.S. Navy sent a military aircraft to assist with the search, China Daily reported on Monday. When the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded off the southern coast of the United States in 2010, it spilled about 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
The Chinese Transport Minister said there was a danger of the Iranian tanker exploding or sinking, adding that the rescue operations were extremely tricky as the toxic smoke in the area could harm the people involved, Efe news reported.
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Chinese state media CCTV showed footage on Monday of boats dousing the flames with water as plumes of thick dark smoke continued to billow from the tanker. The cargo ship reportedly suffered damage but all crew members were rescued. "What is important now is to understand how much of that oil has burned off, and how much is leaking into the sea".
The flames were forcing the South Korean Coast Guard's search and rescue team to stay as far as 4.8 kilometres away from the tanker, two South Korean officials said. The two other crew members are from Bangladesh.
Chinese officials recently said that no large oil spill has been detected. The ship belongs to the Iranian company but was rented by a company in South Korea. According to recent reports, the ship is still on fire.
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The Sanchi was carrying 136,000 tonnes of condensate, an ultra-light crude that is highly flammable and to South Korea, equivalent to about 1 million barrels and worth about $60 million.