JEKYLL ISLAND, Ga. (AP) - Coast Guard rescuers made contract Monday with four crew members trapped inside a capsized cargo ship, confirming that the men were still alive more than a day after the vessel overturned while leaving a port on the Georgia coast.
Rescuers used a helicopter to land on the side of the Golden Ray and rappelled down the hull. They drilled a hole to communicate and found the crew members were "on board and OK," said Lt. Lloyd Heflin, who's coordinating the rescue.
Finding a way to free the men without putting them in more danger was the next step. Rescue efforts broke off Sunday after responders determined a fire aboard the ship made it too dangerous to go inside. They were also concerned about the stability of the ship, which was carrying 4,000 automobiles, some of which may have broken loose.
"It's still going to be a while," Heflin said. "We're still working the problem to see what the safest way is."
Rescuers tried to communicate with the South Korean crew about possible hazards inside, but said there was an initial language barrier, Heflin said.
The Coast Guard said it would seek to deliver supplies through the communication hole or another hole. Some rescuers worked from a tent set up on the deck of a tugboat off the ship's stern, while smaller boats and helicopters buzzed around.
The accident that happened as the ship left Brunswick early Sunday sparked fires and smoke. The flames were extinguished, but the huge ship was listing at nearly 90 degrees.
The 656-foot (200-meter) vehicle carrier is now stuck in the shipping channel, closing one of the busiest U.S. seaports for shipping automobiles.
A statement issued Monday by the South Korea foreign ministry said the crew members were isolated in an engine room. It said 10 South Koreans and 13 Filipinos had been on board, along with a U.S. harbor pilot, when the ship began tilting.
In the hours immediately following the accident, the Coast Guard lifted 20 crew members into helicopters before determining that the smoke and flames and unstable cargo made it too risky to venture further inside.
Position records for the Golden Ray show the ship arrived in port in Brunswick Saturday evening after making the short sail from a prior stop in Jacksonville, Florida. The ship then departed the dock in Brunswick shortly after midnight and was underway only 23 minutes before its movement stopped in the mouth of the harbor where it capsized, according to satellite data recorded by the ship-tracking website Marine Traffic.
The Coast Guard said it was notified of the capsized vessel by a 911 call at about 2 a.m. Sunday.
The cause of the capsizing remains under investigation. Marine Traffic shows the Golden Ray overturned as it was passed by another car carrier entering St. Simons Sound.
At the time, the skies were clear and the weather calm, with a southerly breeze of only 5 miles per hour, according to National Weather Service records.
Many of those rescued were taken to the International Seafarers' Center in Brunswick. Sailors arrived with only what they were wearing when rescued.
A restaurant donated a meal and the volunteer-run center provided the seamen with clothes, toiletries and Bibles. A priest said Mass for the sailors Sunday afternoon before they were taken to a hotel.
"They were all in relatively good spirits," said the center's executive director, Vicki West. "We just do anything we can to be their little respite in the storm."
The ship channel is currently closed to vessel traffic, with a safety zone of a half mile around the Golden Ray in the sound.
The vessel is owned by Hyundai Glovis, which carries cars for automakers Hyundai and Kia as well as others.
Nearly 614,000 vehicles and heavy machinery units moved across Brunswick's docks in the 2019 fiscal year that ended June 30, according to the Georgia Ports Authority.
Amy reported from Atlanta. Associated Press writer Michael Biesecker contributed from Washington, D.C.