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Salvage crew boards stricken ship off NZ coast

 People, right top, stand on the Papamoa Beach dirtied by fuel oil spilled from the Liberian-flagged container ship Rena which has been stuck aground ...
 A man walks by the Papamoa Beach dirtied with fuel oil washed ashore from the Liberian-flagged container ship Rena that has been stuck aground on a r...
 In this photo provided by Maritime New Zealand, shipping containers float Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011, in the water around the cargo ship Rena that has ...
 People remove fuel oil washed on to the Mount Maunganui Beach from the Liberian-flagged container ship Rena which has been stuck aground on a reef of...
 In this Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011 photo provided by Maritime New Zealand, a large crack from the deck to the waterline has emerged on the cargo ship R...
 CAPTION CORRECTION, CORRECTS NAME OF MOUNTAIN - Al Powell removes a chunk of fuel oil from the Mount Maunganui beach stained with oil leaked from the...
 CAPTION CORRECTION, CORRECTS NAME OF MOUNTAIN - Sharon Smith removes a chunk of fuel oil on the Mount Maunganui beach stained with oil leaked from th...
 CAPTION CORRECTION, CORRECTS NAME OF MOUNTAIN - A dead bird is seen on the Mount Maunganui beach after being washed ashore stained with fuel oil from...

New Zealand Grounded Ship

People, right top, stand on the Papamoa Beach dirtied by fuel oil spilled from the Liberian-flagged container ship Rena which has been stuck aground ...

New Zealand Grounded Ship

A man walks by the Papamoa Beach dirtied with fuel oil washed ashore from the Liberian-flagged container ship Rena that has been stuck aground on a r...

APTOPIX New Zealand Grounded Ship

In this photo provided by Maritime New Zealand, shipping containers float Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011, in the water around the cargo ship Rena that has ...

New Zealand Grounded Ship

People remove fuel oil washed on to the Mount Maunganui Beach from the Liberian-flagged container ship Rena which has been stuck aground on a reef of...

New Zealand Grounded Ship

In this Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011 photo provided by Maritime New Zealand, a large crack from the deck to the waterline has emerged on the cargo ship R...

CORRECTION New Zealand Grounded Ship

CAPTION CORRECTION, CORRECTS NAME OF MOUNTAIN - Al Powell removes a chunk of fuel oil from the Mount Maunganui beach stained with oil leaked from the...

CORRECTION New Zealand Grounded Ship

CAPTION CORRECTION, CORRECTS NAME OF MOUNTAIN - Sharon Smith removes a chunk of fuel oil on the Mount Maunganui beach stained with oil leaked from th...

CORRECTION New Zealand Grounded Ship

CAPTION CORRECTION, CORRECTS NAME OF MOUNTAIN - A dead bird is seen on the Mount Maunganui beach after being washed ashore stained with fuel oil from...

A salvage crew on Thursday finally managed to board a cargo ship that has spilled hundreds of tons of oil since striking a reef off New Zealand, and was racing to assess whether oil can be pumped from the ship before the vessel breaks up.
Heavy seas had kept the critical salvage team away for days, but a break in the weather allowed three crew members to be winched on board the Liberian-flagged Rena, which ran aground Oct. 5 on Astrolabe Reef, 14 miles (22 kilometers) from Tauranga Harbour on New Zealand's North Island. About 88 containers have fallen off the deck of the 775-foot (236-meter) vessel as it has listed increasingly in stormy ocean conditions, and the vessel has been fractured by a large crack.
The crew was checking the stability of the ship and whether it was even still possible to pump out the remaining oil, said Steve Jones, spokesman for Maritime New Zealand, which is managing the emergency response. Officials were trying to find out whether a heating system that is needed to liquefy the oil before it can be pumped out is still working, he said.
A vertical crack in the ship that the maritime agency described as a "substantial structural failure" runs around the entire vessel _ meaning the ship is now only held together by its internal components, Jones said.
"The reality is the vessel could break up at any point," Jones told The Associated Press. "Conditions are very calm out at the moment. ... If we're going to get oil off before the ship breaks up, today's the day."
The piles of containers that remain on deck have continued to move, making it dangerous for salvage crews to work on board. Six vessels have been mobilized to intercept the drifting containers and other debris in the water. The maritime agency has predicted more containers will topple off as the ship continues to shift.
There were 1,368 containers on board, 11 of which contained hazardous substances, Maritime New Zealand said. One of the hazardous containers is among those that have fallen overboard, Jones said. The container holds a chemical that is used in cosmetics and creates a flammable gas when it mixes with water, Jones said. But because the container has been in the sea for some time, any gas created has likely already dispersed _ meaning it shouldn't create problems if it washes ashore, Jones said.
The ship's 44-year-old Filipino captain, whose name has not been revealed publicly, was charged with operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk and was released on bail Wednesday at Tauranga District Court. The ship's second officer is expected to face a similar charge on Thursday.
The captain's lawyer, Paul Mabey, requested that Judge Robert Wolff withhold his client's name because, he said, "there is a real potential that some persons may want to take matters into their own hands," the New Zealand Herald reported on its website. It also said the grounding occurred on the captain's birthday.
If convicted, the captain could face a fine of up to 10,000 New Zealand dollars ($7,800) and 12 months in prison. His next court appearance is Oct. 19, when authorities say more charges are likely.
The government has demanded to know why the ship crashed into the well-charted reef in calm weather, but the vessel's owner has given no explanation.
Maritime New Zealand estimates that at least 390 tons (350 metric tons) of heavy fuel oil have spilled from the hull, leading New Zealand's environment minister, Nick Smith, to call it the country's biggest maritime environmental disaster. Officials believe the ship had about 1,870 tons (1,700 metric tons) of oil and 220 tons (200 metric tons) of diesel on board before it started leaking.
Clumps of oil have washed up on pristine beaches near Tauranga. Maritime New Zealand said 200 oiled birds had been found dead and 47 others were being cleaned at a wildlife emergency center.
Several miles (kilometers) of coastline have been closed to the public, and some beaches were beginning to experience severe oiling, Jones said.
"I was down there this morning," Jones said. "It was just black coming in _ just black, black, black."
Witnesses said dead fish were also washing ashore as local volunteers with plastic gloves and buckets worked to clean the oily clots from the white sand.
In a statement, the owners of the vessel, Greece-based Costamare Inc., said they were "cooperating fully with local authorities" and were making every effort to "control and minimize the environmental consequences of this incident." The company did not offer any explanation for the grounding.