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Maritime mystery: What became of 70 cargo containers that fell overboard off NC?

This is what it looks like when a cargo ship starts to spill it’s load. This photo records a case that happened off New Zealand in 2011, when 70 containers fell off the cargo ship Rena.
This is what it looks like when a cargo ship starts to spill it’s load. This photo records a case that happened off New Zealand in 2011, when 70 containers fell off the cargo ship Rena. AP

There’s a mystery growing off the North Carolina coast, nearly 10 days after a cargo ship lost 76 containers during rough seas.

Where did they go? In particular, where is the trailer that contained 3 tons of sulfuric acid?

To date, there have been no confirmed reports of containers washing up on shore, says the U.S Coast Guard.

Flight crews have conducted multiple overflights in a search for the containers, and initially located nine. However, seven of them are no longer floating. The remaining two are being tracked as they float further east. Where they’re headed is anybody’s guess.

That leaves about 70 containers unaccounted for, and they’re the size of tractor trailers. Did they sink or are they still out there, bobbing along? And what’s in them?

Coast Guard officials aren’t taking any chances. The agency has warned mariners of a “navigation hazard” in the area, about 17 miles off Oregon Inlet.

The cargo ship Maersk Shanghai reported March 4 that 76 loaded containers went overboard during rough seas. The Outer Banks was experiencing gale force winds around the time. Among the containers is one filled with 5,900 pounds of sulfuric acid. The company says there is no indication any containers of sulfuric acid have surfaced or washed up on shore.

No other hazardous materials were reported in the containers, said a statement from the Coast Guard.

The owners of Maersk Shanghai have contracted a salvage company to place tracking devices and lights on the containers found floating. The Coast Guard continues to issue Safety Marine Information Broadcasts to inform boaters of the positions of the known containers.

Maersk has also developed a plan to use side-scan sonar to locate the submerged containers to determine their risk to safe navigation and environmental impact.

“Our main priority is ensuring the safety of navigation in the area and addressing potential environmental impacts,” said Coast Guard Capt. Bion Stewart, commanding officer in the N.C. sector. “We are working with NOAA, the EPA, the National Park Service, state and local emergency management and the responsible party to reduce navigation and environmental hazards as quickly as possible.”

Sulfuric acid is a colorless, oily liquid that burns the skin on contact and corrodes most metals. But the environmental danger is minimal because the solution dissolves in saltwater, Coast Guard officials told news outlets. The substance is often used to produce fertilizer.

The container is marked with diamond placards identifying the contents as a corrosive, reported the Outer Banks Voice.

This is not the first time a cargo ship has spilled trailers off the Outer Banks.

Among the most memorable: In 2006, a container filled with thousands of bags of Doritos washed up off Frisco, creating a frenzy as people snatched armloads of nacho cheese, cool ranch and spicy nacho varieties. It was reported at least one beachcomber filled up a pickup truck with bags and drove away into the sunset.

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