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Seafarers are taking part in an historic at-sea mission to destroy some of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.
Sailing out of Portsmouth, Va., in January, the SIU-crewed MV Cape Ray was positioned as an integral part of the American mission to eliminate Syria’s ability to unleash any further chemical attacks during its prolonged civil war.
The crew of the 648-foot Cape Ray includes 35 civilian mariners, more than 60 U.S. Army chemical specialists, a security team and representatives from U.S. European command. Owned by the U.S. Maritime Administration, the vessel was turned over to the Military Sealift Command (MSC) once it left Virginia for its mission. The ship is operated by SIU-contracted Keystone.
Acting Maritime Administrator Paul “Chip” Jaenichen praised the U.S. Merchant Marine during a press conference aboard the vessel, adding the mission “demonstrated the versatile resources we have” available.
“And that’s the Ready Reserve Force ships and our U.S. Merchant Mariners who are ready and able and, when called, serve our nation so capably,” Jaenichen said, specifically pointing to the Seafarers aboard the ship. “I’d like to make a couple of thanks to the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA) and the Seafarers International Union. It’s no small effort to keep a 30-year-old vessel like these ready to serve with little to no advanced warning.”
Vessel master Capt. Rick Jordan also had high praise for the SIU crew. Jordan said he sailed with most of the mariners before and called them “some of the best guys” he’s ever worked with.
“We’ve got some really good folks on here,” Jordan said. “The whole key here is teamwork. And there’s been an unbelievable amount of teamwork.”
The mission comes after the international community banded together last year to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons stockpile following a confirmed chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,400 people in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. A Nobel Prize has already been awarded to the weapons inspectors for their part in the chemical weapons removal process.
Expected to last around 90 days, the Cape Ray’s mission has the ship sailing to an undisclosed port to retrieve the weapons and then sailing to an undisclosed location in international waters to destroy them at sea.
Frank Kendall, under secretary of Defense for acquisition, said disposing the weapons at sea is vital to safely destroying the chemical weapons stockpile.
“This avoids having to put these materials on somebody’s territory, where you have to deal with all the political and environmental conditions associated with doing that under local law,” he said.
To prepare the Cape Ray for the mission, the ship was equipped with two massive units designed to break down and destroy the chemical weapons, which include mustard gas and a form of sarin nerve gas.
“We expect to deal with about 700 tons (of chemical weapons),” Kendall said. “And we have the capacity to deal with that.”
Installed in the center of the Cape Ray’s cargo hold, the two weapons disposal units are covered with a thick plastic tent that will protect the crew from the chemicals during the destruction process. Inside, the system uses a water and chemical cocktail to break down chemical weapons within a titanium reactor. The remaining waste will be destroyed at an undisclosed chemical site.
Since the technology had never been tested under at-sea conditions, the Cape Ray conducted several sea trials in preparation for the mission.
“The crew conducted several training drills and assessed all systems aboard,” Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said following the final trial on Jan. 10.
Aside from preparing and testing the equipment, officials said they would also be closely monitoring and adjusting to Mother Nature.
“Weather is the single most important factor a mariner has to consider,” Jordan said. “Far and away, weather is our single biggest obstacle on this trip.”
Kendall, meanwhile, said safety would be the top priority when conducting the actual mission
“We’re going to make sure that we dispose of the materials that we have to handle in a very safe manner,” he said. “We’re going to give the ship back to the Maritime Administration as clean as we got it.”
The SIU crew aboard the Cape Ray includes: Bosun William Lima, ABs Walter Ott, Jonathan Davis, George Phillips, Mark Brownell and Shaun Wood, QE4 James Anthony Fells, QEEs Kevin Quinlan and Mark Maduro, Oiler Andre Mitchell, GVAs Lance Spain and Dionta Winstead, Steward/ Baker Edward Banks, Chief Cooks Jose David, Helen Mitchell, Emanuel Spain and Sandra Vann, and SAs Cornelius Taylor, Arica Shaw, Jacqueline Sivels, Mary Slade and Emanuel Spain.