US Coast Guard (USGC) rescuers have freed three of four missing crew members trapped inside a capsized cargo ship off the Georgia coast.
Rescuers used a helicopter to land on the side of the Golden Ray and rappelled down the hull.
Salvage crews gradually drilled an opening in the ship’s hull, first to deliver food and water to the survivors, then to extract them, USCG Captain John Reed told a livestreamed news conference.
The fourth missing crew member was trapped behind a glass panel in the ship’s engineering control room, and though rescuers could see him, they had yet to get him out, he said.
“He’s at greatest risk … right now,” said Reed.
“We are trusting that the ventilation in there remains intact.”
The fourth crew member has yet to get any food or water around 36 hours into his ordeal. Temperatures for rescue workers on the hull of the ship rose to 49C and Reed believed it was even hotter inside the ship.
Asked about the condition of the three rescued crew members, Reed said two of them were able to walk off the hull of the ship and get on a tugboat.
All three were taken to hospital.
“Their condition is relatively good for having spent 34 or 35 hours in the conditions they were in,” Reed said.
He declined to comment on what might have caused the vessel to tip over as it transported around 4000 cars.
The accident that happened as the ship left Brunswick early on Sunday sparked fires and smoke. The flames were extinguished, but the huge ship was listing at nearly 90 degrees.
The 656ft vehicle carrier is stuck in the shipping channel, closing one of the busiest US seaports.
In the hours immediately after 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 Brunswick on Saturday evening after making the short sail from a stop in Jacksonville, Florida.
The ship then departed the dock in Brunswick shortly after midnight and was under way for only 23 minutes before its movement stopped in the mouth of the harbour where it capsized, according to satellite data recorded by the ship-tracking website Marine Traffic.
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 5mph, according to National Weather Service records.
The vessel is owned by Hyundai Glovis, which carries cars for Hyundai and Kia as well as others.