Friday, January 1, 1999



Propane tank
recovered; balloon
still missing

A co-pilot of the ditched
balloon thinks it has sunk; some
fear it might pose a hazard to
boats or marine life

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Star-Bulletin

Tapa

An 8-foot-long, stainless steel propane tank from the ditched ICO Global balloon has been recovered on Kauai.

"It's contained on shore and a berm has been built around it," Kauai Fire Chief David Sproat said. "At the present time, it's not venting any propane."

The tank is on a beach between Waimea and Kekaha on the west side of the island, and a private contractor has been hired to remove it, Sproat said.

"The contractor will put it on a barge (today or tomorrow) and take it to Honolulu," he added.

A tour boat spotted the leaking propane tank Wednesday night and notified the Coast Guard.

The tank is the latest piece of equipment recovered since the ICO Global balloon ditched on Christmas Day just 10 miles off Kahuku Point.

Still missing is the envelope, or balloon section, which is 160 feet tall and 120 feet wide, and made of an aramid fabric with a coat of plastic. Aramid fabrics are strong, lightweight synthetics used in such items as bulletproof vests.

The cone is further coated with a thin layer of aluminum.

Per Lindstrand, one of the three co-pilots rescued a week ago from the ditched balloon, thinks it has sunk to the bottom of the ocean somewhere south of Kauai.

"If it were floating it would be dangerous to boats, but it has sunk," said Lindstrand.

"We are 100 percent certain," he said Wednesday. "You can't hide something as big as that balloon on the surface of the ocean."

Lindstrand has been overseeing a salvage mission that began Saturday and continued through yesterday.

"My intention is to stay until the salvage operation is finished -- and I think we are finished," he said. The other two balloonists, British tycoon Richard Branson and American millionaire Steve Fossett, left Hawaii on Saturday.

Lindstrand said two fuel tanks have been recovered, both in waters south of Kauai. "The two were found floating, towed into dock and disposed of," he said.

The rest of the balloon, weighing 7-plus tons, should have sunk because it had no buoyancy, he said. "There's no way it can float."

There are concerns, however, that the balloon could be a hazard for craft and sea creatures.

Gene Nitta, the National Marine Fisheries Service's protected species program manager, said his primary concern is that the balloon might reach shore or snag on coral. That's particularly worrisome if it floats as far as the uninhabited islands in the northwestern Hawaiian chain, which have "sensitive habitat for monk seals and green sea turtles."

If it latches onto coral, he said, the balloon could suffocate or break off branches.

David MacKenzie, a University of Hawaii oceanography professor, said the balloon would be more of a hazard to boaters than to marine life.

"Most sea life is going to steer away from this thing," he said.

Ed Laws, another UH oceanography professor, shared the concern about possible impacts on the reef environment.

"If this balloon hasn't entirely sunk, it may wash up on the reef someplace and do damage to the reef by simply banging around it," he said.

Laws also is worried that when the balloon breaks apart, animals will ingest it, thinking it is food.



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