(CNN) — The sound of tapping led rescuers to the four people who had been trapped on a cargo ship that capsized off the Georgia coast on Sunday.
A salvage team began tapping on the overturned Golden Ray cargo ship Sunday morning, hoping for a response from the crew members stranded on board, Capt. John Reed, commander of the Coast Guard Sector Charleston, said.
For hours, they were met with silence. Then, sometime overnight, “they got taps back,” he said.
Rescuers were dropped off via helicopter and drilled a small hole in the ship to communicate with the crew members, Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Phillip VanderWeit said. As they worked to make the hole large enough to let in food, water and more air, temperatures climbed to 120 degrees outside and even higher inside the boat, Reed said.
By 3 p.m. three of the crew members had been safely rescued, and the fourth was freed a few hours later, Reed said.
When the final crew member exited the boat, rescuers cheered and clapped.
“That is amazing. The best day of my career because you guys did that. Outstanding,” Reed said from the scene during the final rescue.
A distress call
The Golden Ray called for help around 2 a.m. Sunday, Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Phillip VanderWeit said.
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said the ship began “listing heavily,” about 80 degrees, to the port side before overturning in St. Simons Sound off the Georgia coast, about 80 miles south of Savannah.
Help arrived about two hours after the first call came in, VanderWeit said. Twenty members of the crew were rescued around 4 and 5 a.m., he said.
Some crew members were hoisted onto helicopters while others were lowered — in some cases by fire hoses — onto boats, VanderWeit said.
But rescue efforts stalled as fires broke out on the boat and it became unstable.
“As smoke and flames began to appear our crews, along with the Glynn County heavy rescue team, assessed that the situation was too risky to further go inside the vessel to attempt to locate the four individuals who remain missing at this time,” Reed said.
But the Coast Guard remained on scene throughout the night and when the boat stabilized Monday rescue efforts resumed.
Three of the four crew members who had been trapped were found in the propeller shaft Monday. The final crew member had been stuck behind glass in an engineering room, Reed told reporters.
They were all transported to area hospitals.
Speaking about the four crew members, Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Phillip VanderWeit said: “The expressions on their faces said it all.”
The cause of the incident is unknown
Officials are still trying to determine what caused the ship to overturn.
The cargo ship, owned by South Korean-based cargo logistics company Hyundai Glovis, carries vehicles and had just been unloaded and reloaded by longshoremen at the Port of Brunswick in the hours before it began leaning, a longshorewoman told CNN. The loading process went smoothly, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary, she said
Its next stop was Baltimore, where it was expected to arrive Monday, according to MarineTraffic.com.
Scott Cornell, the COO of Glovis America, a subsidiary of Hyundai Glovis, told CNN the company follows international maritime regulations on properly securing its cargo during transport.
“There were no extreme circumstances that lead us to believe that our proper handling methods weren’t abided to,” he said.
Now that everyone is off of the ship, the Coast Guard and other agencies are working to remove the vessel from the sound and investigate the cause.
Two investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, which is supporting the Coast Guard investigation, were expected to arrive on the scene Monday, according to NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway.
The vessel was leaking some oil into the waterway, said Chris Graff, the director of response services for Gallagher Marine Systems, Hyundai Glovis’ designated spill management company. He said the oil was possibly from hydraulic fuel and from the engine.
As a precaution, Coastal Georgia Public Health issued a swimming advisory for St. Simons and Jekyll Island beaches. They announced Sunday that the Coastal Resources Division of Georgia Department of Natural Resources would conduct water quality sampling to ensure the safety of shellfish harvesting beds and swimming beaches.