After a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and tsunami, major debris will need to be cleared from the Columbia River, and believers in the Salvage Chief think their vessel could be the one to help.
In its prime, the World War II-era landing craft provided assistance to nearly 300 stranded vessels — including the Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker it refloated after a spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989.
The Portland-based vessel worked as a salvage ship for 60 years and was instrumental in a number of ship rescues on the Washington and Oregon coast. It was mothballed at Swan Island in Portland in the late 2000s. The vessel was purchased in 2015 by Salvage Chief LLC, an asset-holding company managed by Pier 39 owner Floyd Holcom.
It was brought back to Astoria with the vision of turning it into a training vessel for local mariners. It sits docked at the Marine and Environmental Research and Training Station at Tongue Point.
Today, the ship is used to educate, with Tongue Point Job Corps Seamanship Program students working on the ship’s machinery every Monday and Wednesday and the U.S. Department of Defense using it for training exercises.
A bill introduced in the Oregon Legislature by state Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, is aiming to bring the ship back into shape, but this time with an earthquake and tsunami in mind. The bill would allocate $1.9 million for engine and emergency communications upgrades, hull repairs and a Coast Guard inspection.
“We believe there’s a notion that something has to stay here and help the populace recuperate, and we believe the Salvage Chief is that vessel,” Holcom said.
The idea came after Holcom received a briefing from the Army about the impact a major earthquake and tsunami could have on the region. One of the concerns after a natural disaster is debris blocking commerce on the Columbia River for a long period of time.
Whether it’s shipwrecked vessels or even pieces of a collapsed Astoria-Megler Bridge, debris could influence the region’s ability to export goods, Holcom said.
Given its placement between the Astoria and Longview bridges, Holcom believes the Salvage Chief is in a unique position to help.
“There is no other vessel like it in the region,” he said.
There are other ways the ship can help, said Don Floyd, a member of the Salvage Chief Foundation and longtime crew member. With five generators on board, enough power could be produced to help operate triage operations on shore when the electricity goes out.
It also has the ability to generate drinkable water and has a helicopter pad on deck that could be used for rescues if necessary, Floyd said.