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Shipmaster took 90 minutes to report reef crash

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KRISTEN GELINEAU | April 14, 2010 11:56 PM EST | AP

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SYDNEY — The master of a Chinese coal carrier that ran aground and cut a long gash in the Great Barrier Reef didn't alert Australian authorities to the crash for an hour and a half, investigators said Thursday.

A preliminary report by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau said the Shen Neng 1 slammed into the reef and shuddered to a halt just after 5 p.m. on April 3, but noted it was not until 6:40 that the master reported the grounding to the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

The gap in time – and whether it was reasonable – is just one factor the bureau will examine in its investigation. The crash left a two-mile (three-kilometer) scar on the reef, damaging a shoal so badly experts estimate it may need up to 20 years to heal.

The 47-year-old master, Jichang Wang, and 44-year-old chief officer, Xuegang Wang, appeared briefly in Gladstone Magistrates Court in Queensland state Thursday. Jichang Wang was charged with liability for a vessel causing damage in a marine park, an offense that carries a maximum 55,000 Australian dollar ($51,200) fine. Xuegang Wang was charged with being in charge of the vessel when it caused the damage, and faces up to three years in prison and a fine of up to AU$220,000.

Both men were granted bail, and Xuegang Wang was ordered to surrender his passport. The next hearing was scheduled for June 9, but the men are not required to appear. Neither has spoken about the crash or investigation of their actions.

Coral shredded the ship's hull, causing it to leak 2-3 tons of fuel oil. Most of the oil was dispersed by a chemical spray and did little or no damage to the reef itself, but officials said Wednesday they believe some has begun washing up on the beach of a wildlife sanctuary.

The crash happened after the crew decided to take a shortcut, and failed to correct course as planned, the transport bureau said in its report. By the time they realized they had drifted into a dangerous area and tried to turn, it was too late – the ship was already shuddering as it slammed into Douglas Shoal.

The bureau said it will focus part of its investigation on whether fatigue played a role in the crash, and will examine the company's work and rest policies.

The report noted the chief officer was at the helm when the ship ran aground, while the master was in his cabin tending to paperwork. The officer felt "very tired" shortly before the grounding, and had only slept around two and a half hours in the previous day and a half, the report said.

"There is no single contributing factor, there's a range of things," the transport bureau's chief commissioner Martin Dolan told reporters.

The Great Barrier Reef is a World Heritage site because of its gleaming waters and environmental value as home to thousands of marine species. The accident occurred in the southern tip of the reef, which is not the main tourism hub.

The Australian Federal Police said officers executed a search warrant on the ship on Wednesday. It was not clear what they were looking for.

The ship's owner, Shenzen Energy Transport, said last week it was cooperating with the investigation.

The 755-foot (230-meter) ship was successfully lifted off the reef Monday after crews spent three days removing its fuel to lighten it. Salvage crews later towed it to an anchorage area near Great Keppel Island, 45 miles (70 kilometers) away.

Before the ship was removed, tides and currents repeatedly pushed it along the reef, cutting a scar 1.9 miles (3 kilometers) long and up to 820 feet (250 meters) wide into the coral.

Paint from the hull, applied to keep marine life from growing on it, was smeared onto coral and plants. Certain paints contain chemicals to prevent growth, while others simply act as a barrier. Experts are analyzing paint samples to determine if it is the more toxic variety.

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Associated Press researcher Xi Yue contributed to this report from Beijing.