12:30 p.m. Friday update:
With the ongoing letup in stormy weather in the Gulf of Alaska continuing Friday, salvage crews have once again returned to the grounded drilling rig Kulluk as air operations appeared to be expanding.
For the first time, the industry-government Unified Command reported Friday morning that commercial helicopters are being used in the salvage and monitoring operation. Coast Guard helicopters will continue to deliver and pick up the salvage team inspecting the rig.
Officials said the salvage team consists of a dozen experts.
Salvage operations are being led by Smit Salvage, a Netherlands-based company with operations worldwide.
The Kulluk grounded Dec. 31 in the middle of a fierce Gulf of Alaska storm. Lacking propulsion of its own, it broke free from its tow on a monthlong voyage from Dutch Harbor to the Seattle area.
In a spot forecast for the area of the Kulluk, just off the southern coast of Sitkalidak Island near Kodiak Island, the U.S. Weather Service predicted rain showers for Friday with 10-foot seas subsiding to 6 feet by afternoon. Stronger winds and higher seas are expected for Friday night and Saturday, but milder conditions are expected to return by Saturday night.
12:15 p.m. Friday update:
-- From Lisa Demer in Kodiak
The Best Western Kodiak Inn is a hub for the huge command team trying to figure out how to salvage the Royal Dutch Shell oil drilling rig that's been stranded since Monday on a rocky shore just off pristine Sitkalidak Island, a hunting and fishing mecca for Old Harbor Alaska Natives just south of Kodiak Island.
Guards with Purcell Security, owned by Nana Development Corp. -- the Kotzebue-based Alaska Native regional corporation -- are stationed outside a meeting room that's been turned into a command post. They said no reporters were allowed inside and they wouldn't let a photographer snap a quick picture or allow a reporter to glance at the sign-in sheet. But anyone sitting in the hotel lobby could see people -- mainly men -- come and go all day, including a number who came for a 7 a.m. operational briefing in the Harbor Room.
The sign on the door said "Authorized Personnel Only." Many wore logo gear: U.S. Coast Guard, Shell, Noble Drilling Corp., the oil spill cleanup company Alaska Chadux Corp., Global Diving & Salvage, the giant Dutch salvage company Smit, Beacon Occupational Health and Safety Services. After the morning briefing, a Smit leader rounded up his waiting crew."OK boys, let's get out of here," he said.
Many of those in and out of the Kodiak Inn and the nearby Shelikof Lodge are at the ready, dressed in Xtratufs and Carhartts and hauling waterproof duffels and Rubbermaid tubs. They appeared to be preparing for several flights to the Kulluk and perhaps a trip on an Old Harbor salmon seiner.
Thursday night story:
Seawater that is now in the hull of the grounded drilling vessel Kulluk has apparently come from open hatches, a Shell official said Thursday.
While the results of two days of inspections by salvage crews remain preliminary, Sean Churchfield, Shell's Alaska operations official, attributed the flooding below deck to open hatches and not to cracks or holes in the hull.
At a news conference Thursday, Churchfield also said that electrical generators on the Kulluk are wrecked, but declined to say how that would affect future salvage efforts. He and a Coast Guard official, Capt. Paul Mehler, the federal on-scene commander, also wouldn't estimate when an attempt would be made to move the Kulluk.
So far, there have been no signs of oil sheen or other evidence that any of the 155,000 gallons of diesel fuel and other refined petroleum liquids had escaped the Kulluk's tanks since it scraped aground off Sitkalidak Island Monday evening. The island is about 10 miles south of the Kodiak Island community of Old Harbor.
The Kulluk, a cone-shaped rig with a round deck, was built to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean and is part of Shell's exploration program for the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Built without a propulsion system, it was being towed from Dutch Harbor to the Seattle area after the drilling season for refurbishment.
Churchfield said the Kulluk, aground in 30 to 40 feet of water, remained "upright and stable."
A team of five salvage experts landed on the Kulluk's deck Wednesday for a three-hour inspection. With the weather improving, six were landed Thursday and more were expected to be dropped. An emergency towing package was also placed on board.
The salvage teams discovered "some wave damage to the topsides of the vessel and that a number of water-tight hatches have been breached, causing water damage inside, and the team has secured some of the open hatches," Churchfield said.
Asked whether the hatches were left open by the 18 Kulluk crew members when they were evacuated by the Coast Guard Helicopter Thursday, Tommy Travis of Noble Drilling, Shell's contractor said he couldn't answer until an investigation is done.
Churchfield said Shell was staging oil-spill response equipment and supplies in Seward, Kodiak and Old Harbor in case the Kulluk fuel tanks ruptured.
In addition to sensitive wildlife habitat and salmon streams, the area where the Kulluk is grounded contains "extremely culturally sensitive" resources, said state on-scene coordinator Steve Russell of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. He explained later he was referring to Refuge Rock, the historical site of a massacre of hundreds of local villagers, including children, in 1784 by Russian traders.
Refuge Rock is within a mile from the grounded vessel but is probably not endangered by a potential fuel leak, Russell said. The most historically significant part of the site is above the high tide line, he said.
Mehler, the Coast Guard official, said that at his request, a high-level team is on its way to Alaska from the Coast Guard's Investigation Center of Expertise in New Orleans to conduct a "maritime casualty investigation" into what happened with the Kulluk.
Reach Richard Mauer at email@example.com or 257-4345.
By RICHARD MAUER