Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

New Zealander of the Year 2011 Finalist: Rena Salvors

Salvors have to battle the unpredictability of the Rena and the slippery, murky corridors amid the stench of rotting food. Photo / Supplied
Salvors have to battle the unpredictability of the Rena and the slippery, murky corridors amid the stench of rotting food. Photo / Supplied

He's an average bloke, a family man in most cases, and probably enjoys a beer or two at the end of the day.

If you saw him in the local supermarket, as many Mt Maunganui locals will have, you'd never pick him as anybody special.

But a special person he is.

Because while most of us drive or catch the train to work, he arrives at his job in a helicopter harness.

While we're at the office, he could be guiding a heavy crane above a 12m shipping container or covered in thick, toxic ooze and down in a deep fuel tank, where the threat of drowning is ever present.

He's the salvor aboard the limp, wailing, cargo ship Rena - and to many in the Bay of Plenty, a saviour.

Yet try to pin a medal on his chest reading "hero" and he'll sharply hand it back and tell you to give it to a nurse or a police constable.

"They're just not into that stuff ... they do what they have to do, and that's their job," said Matthew Watson, the spokesman for their salvage company, Svitzer.

The 25 to 30 people in the Rena team represent the "absolute cream" of the world's salvors.

Just hours after the container ship slugged into the Astrolabe Reef off the Tauranga coast early on October 5, the Netherlands-based company was scrambling its best men.

They are engineers, divers, naval architects and ships' masters from New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, South Africa, Holland and the United States, aged from their mid 20s to early 50s.

As an oil slick began to spread from the grounded vessel in the early days of the disaster, salvors were quickly preparing a plan to contain what was said to be the year's worst shipwreck.

They were instantly thrown into their exhausting, relentless routine of work and sleep - at sea, they were working, on land, they were in bed.

Unsurprisingly, they can earn up to US$1800 ($2300) a day.

Apart from the few senior salvors who have fronted the media - among them Michael Riddell, Paul Van't Hoff and the tough-faced Captain Drew Shannon, a Sydneysider - we don't know the names of these men.

We know that at any given time, about three Kiwis will be among them.

In the first glimpses offered to the public, supplied photographs showed tiny figures hoisting bulky generators on to the deck of the 47,000-tonne ship, by then broken and doomed.

Another video showed a salvor step over a huge gash in the ship's port side, ripped open during a storm that also sent 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil into the sea and eventually on to beaches.

What they have so far achieved is remarkable. Namely, they have prevented a second spill by pumping more than 1300 tonnes of thick, Marmite-like oil from the Rena's tanks.

This has meant lugging generators and pumps, some weighing 100kg, around leaning, slippery decks amid the pungent odour of rotting food in containers.

"Some of them get covered from head to toe in oil, grease, grime and sweat - it can be a very dirty job, there's no doubt about that," Mr Watson said.

Five decks below in the eerie engine room, it was pitch black and much more like being in the bowels of a coal mine.

To reach the last of the oil, divers had to swim in corridors flooded with murky, oily water to build a sealed dam through to the submerged starboard tank.

"If that dam broke and seawater flooded down into the manhole, it's very unlikely salvors in that tank would have got out alive."

Removing all the 1280 containers got off to a swift start, with the tally approaching 200, but there is no telling when another violent storm could send them all into the sea.

"The salvors would never dare imply that things are going exceptionally well, because what's going well one minute could go terribly the next," Mr Watson said.

"It's still hour-by-hour."

Yet they are aware how those on the shore think of them, having been overwhelmed by the number of letters of appreciation mailed from grateful residents.

"Some of them are extremely heartfelt and it's been tremendous and greatly appreciated ... but they don't want to give the wrong impression. Their job is not over."

- NZ Herald

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