updated 12/13/2004 10:31:10 PM ET 2004-12-14T03:31:10

Coast Guard officials Monday said an oil and fuel spill from a freighter that broke in two when it ran aground off Alaska’s coast probably amounted to thousands of gallons less than had been feared.

The federal government’s incident commander, Capt. Ron Morris, said just 41,138 gallons of bunker fuel were inside the tank directly breached when the Malaysian soybean freighter Selendang Ayu split in two Wednesday on an Unalaska Island shoal.

Coast Guard officials last week said they thought the 140,000-gallon tank had been full.

Determining which tanks remain intact is a key part of developing a plan to offload remaining oil, and eventually remove the freighter’s bow and stern sections.

The ship was carrying 483,000 gallons of heavy bunker oil and about 21,000 gallons of diesel fuel when it ran aground.

Officials said a tank with 104,448 gallons of bunker oil had apparently also been breached, but that no large-scale leak was believed to be occurring there.

Virtually no oil has been recovered.

The vessel Redeemer attempted skimming operations with equipment geared to heavy oil, said Gary Folley, the state’s on-scene coordinator. “They have been encountering heavy sheen and tar balls but no recoverable oil,” he said.

Tar balls are heavy oil globs mixed with rock, dirt or sediment.

“It’s not easy to recover with a traditional skimmer,” Folley said.

Recovery officials have detected few animals affected by the spill. Two dead cormorants were spotted last week. Five dead waterfowl, three more cormorants and two other seabirds were spotted Sunday, Morris said.

A break in the weather Sunday allowed a Coast Guard helicopter to place a three-man assessment crew on the stern. The helicopter did not have the same luck Monday, Morris said.

“The forward section is awash,” he said. “The waves are coming over the deck.”

Howard Hile of Gallagher Marine Services, who is heading the recovery for the ship’s owners, said a salvage plan was between two days and a week away. He said the preferred option would be to remove oil before either part of the ship is moved.

Leslie Pearson, prevention and emergency response program manager for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said it’s unlikely a vessel carrying a pump would be able to lift oil from the damaged freighter sections. “It’s just too dangerous,” she said.

A more likely scenario is an airlifted pump — brought in by heavy-lift helicopter — placed on the freighter itself that could pump oil off into other tanks.

The freighter lost power in its main engine last Tuesday, and tugs and Coast Guard cutters were unable to halt its drift to Unalaska Island.

Six crew members from the ship were lost when a Coast Guard helicopter crashed after lifting them off the vessel Wednesday. Four other people were rescued, including the three helicopter crew members.

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