A ship carrying 2,400 tonnes of sulphuric acid capsized Thursday on Germany’s Rhine river, blocking traffic on one of Europe’s busiest waterways amid a frantic search for two crew members.
According to preliminary indications, the vessel’s tanks seemed to be intact, authorities said, with “no obvious damage” to the acid containers.
“There does not seem to have been any acid leakage into the water, according to an initial, provisional investigation,” said Ralf Schomisch, a spokesman for police in nearby Koblenz. Sulphuric acid is an extremely corrosive liquid.
Traffic on the river, a major European shipping artery, was suspended following the accident, which took place around 5:00 am (0400 GMT) near Sankt Goar, northwest of the city of Mainz in western Germany.
The ship, the Waldhof, measures roughly 110 metres (360 feet) long and was lying upside-down in the water. Authorities are still investigating what could have caused the accident.
An AFP photographer at the scene said at least two-thirds of the tanker was below the waterline and that the banks of the river were buzzing with fire engines and rescue vehicles while police boats scoured the water.
Helicopters equipped with infrared cameras circled the area in what authorities described as a “frantic” search for the two missing crew members.
“Two members of the crew were rescued but two others are missing,” river police spokesman Paul-Heinz Meurisch said.
Following a bitter cold snap in Germany, temperatures are now milder, he said, adding: “I really cannot say anything about their chances of survival.”
One crew member missing is German, the other Czech, said a police spokesman in Mainz.
“We are not able to say at the current time how long shipping traffic will be blocked,” Martin Mauermann, a spokesman for Germany’s Federal Shipping Administration, said.
The Waldhof was carrying sulphuric acid loaded at Ludwigshafen from BASF, the world’s biggest chemical group, a spokesman for the company told AFP.
It was steaming north towards the sea reportedly heading for the Belgian port of Antwerp. It is likely to be a German ship, given the name, authorities said, although this was not yet confirmed.
The accident occurred near a celebrated rock outcropping known as “Lorelei”, named after a mythical nymph who was said to lure mariners to their deaths with enchanting, hypnotic songs.
The site is above a particularly narrow point in the river where the current is very strong and many accidents have taken place in the past.
The scenic gorge is a major tourist draw, with holidaymakers from around the world enjoying cruises up and down the busy river.
Melting snow and rains have swollen waterways in the western German region but it was not immediately known if that was a factor in the accident.
In 2001, the Stolt Rotterdam caught fire while lying at the quays of the Bayer chemical company on the Rhine with around 1,800 tonnes of nitric acid aboard.
It took 10 hours for some 150 firefighters to bring the fire under control.