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Iranian Oil Tanker Still Burning Off China's Coast; 31 Crew Still Missing

Crew Missing As Tanker, Freighter Collide Off Chinese Coast
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An Iranian oil tanker that caught fire after colliding with a freighter off China's east coast was still on fire early on January 9 and at risk of exploding, the Chinese government said.

Poor conditions, with heavy winds, rain, and high waves, continue to hamper efforts to tame the fire and search for the 31 remaining crew members on the tanker, China's Transport Ministry said.

Personnel from three countries worked on January 8 to find the tanker's missing crew members and contain oil spewing from the blazing wreck.

An Iranian official said on January 8 that the body of one missing crew member had been found aboard the burning vessel.

Mohammad Rastad, head of Iran's Ports and Maritime Organization, told the ISNA news agency that the body of the dead crew member was sent to Shanghai for identification.

Authorities had been searching for 30 Iranians and two Bangladeshis missing since the collision late on January 6.

The state broadcaster also said that search and cleanup efforts were being hampered by fierce fires and poisonous gases that have completely consumed the tanker and surrounding waters.

The U.S. Navy on January 8 sent a P-8A aircraft from Okinawa, Japan, to join ships and craft from China and South Korea in the search for the missing crew of the Panamanian-flagged oil tanker Sanchi.

The Iranian-operated tanker collided with the Hong Kong-registered CF Crystal about 300 kilometers off China's coast near Shanghai and the mouth of the Yangtze River Delta.

The Sanchi was carrying 136,000 tons of Iranian oil condensate, which is equivalent to nearly 1 million barrels, worth about $60 million.

The ministry said all 21 Chinese crew members were rescued from the damaged CF Crystal, which was carrying 64,000 tons of grain from the United States to southern China.

Rastad said poor weather and huge plumes of smoke rising from the tanker were making search-and-rescue efforts difficult.

"There is a wide perimeter of flames around the vessel because of the spillage and search-and-rescue efforts are being carried out with difficulty," Rastad told Iranian television.

Oceanographer Simon Boxall of the University of Southampton told the BBC that the collision had caused a "big spill," but the winds were "keeping the oil offshore."

"The chances of it reaching the shore are fairly slim," Boxall said. "But we are looking at a lot of oil here and the water depth in that area is only about 50 meters to 60 meters, so in the immediate area it will have a dramatic impact."

The Sanchi was heading to South Korea with its cargo when the collision took place.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the cause of the collision was under investigation.

The Sanchi was built in 2008 and its registered owner is Hong Kong-based Bright Shipping Ltd. on behalf of the National Iranian Tanker Co. (NITC), according to the UN-run International Maritime Organization.

According to Reuters' ship-tracking data, the oil tanker was sailing from Kharg Island in Iran to Daesan, South Korea.

The Shanghai Maritime Bureau said the accident did not affect traffic into and out of Shanghai, one of the world's busiest and biggest ports, or ports along the Yangtze River.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and the BBC