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Still Hope 'Some Crew Members Alive' On Burning Iranian Tanker

The Sanchi tanker carrying Iranian oil burns in the East China Sea on January 7.

The Iranian oil tanker that has been burning for four days in the East China Sea could continue burning for weeks longer, and there is still hope that some of its 31 missing crew members may still be found alive, officials say.

South Korea's Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries told Reuters that the blaze set off by a collision with a freight ship on January 6 could rage for as long as a month.

"We believe flames would last for two weeks or a month considering previous cases of oil tank accidents," official Park Sung-dong said on January 10. "What we are concerned about at this moment is the bunker fuel, which could contaminate water if [the ship] sinks."

Meanwhile, the Iranian company that owns the Sanchi tanker told AP that survivors could still be found on board the burning ship, which officials have warned is in danger of exploding.

"There is still hope," said Mohsen Bahrami, a spokesman for National Iranian Tanker Company. Rescuers would "likely" find survivors as "the engine room is not directly affected by the fire and is about 14 meters under water," he told AP.

The body of one of 32 crewmen has been recovered, while the other 31 are missing.

Dozens of rescue boats have battled strong winds, high waves, and poisonous fumes to put out the fire and search for the missing sailors in an area of 3,000 square kilometers.

The tanker collided with a freighter carrying grain from the United States about 300 kilometers off China's coast near Shanghai.

The Sanchi was carrying 136,000 tons of condensate, an ultralight fuel that is highly flammable, to South Korea.

The Chinese government said late on January 9 that it had not found a "large-scale" oil leak, and the condensate was burning off or evaporating so quickly it would leave little residue if it spills into the ocean. That reduces the chances of an environmentally destructive oil slick forming off China's coast.

Still, condensate is highly volatile when exposed to air and water, and concerns were growing the tanker could explode and sink as long as the fire burns uncontained.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters