By Gyles Beckford
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Salvage experts reboarded a stricken container ship wedged on a reef on Thursday as the vessel threatened to break in half and residents joined specialist crews in clearing beaches of large clumps of toxic fuel oil.
A second ship's officer appeared in court in connection with the running aground of the Liberian-flagged Rena 12 nautical miles off Tauranga on the east coast of New Zealand's North Island.
Officials say that eight days after the accident, large splits have opened up down the middle of its hull of the vessel, which has lost up to 300 tonnes of heavy, thick, toxic fuel.
Salvage teams took advantage of an easing in high winds and heavy swells to clamber back on board the 47,230-tonne Rena.
"They will try to get a feel for how stable she is, what has changed, what's going on out there, is she moving around much," Matt Watson of Svitzer Salvage told Radio NZ.
He said the teams would also see if the ship's systems were working to allow a resumption of the pumping of fuel oil from tanks in the stern.
The second officer, responsible for navigation at the time the Rena struck the reef, was charged with "operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk."
The 37-year-old Philippine national was remanded without plea on bail. The ship's captain appeared on the same charge and was also bailed on Wednesday. The charge carries a maximum fine of NZ$10,000 ($7,800) or 12 months in prison.
Three tugs have been trying to hold the 236-meter (775-foot) ship on the reef and stop the stern breaking away. Authorities said an aerial inspection indicated the ship had settled further on the reef. Cracks in the hull do not appear to have worsened.
More containers had fallen into heaving seas from the ship, which is listing at about 20 degrees. Eighty eight of the 1,368 containers have been lost and authorities said one was carrying ferrosilicon, a hazardous substance which can explode on contact with water.
Police patrolled beaches to stop any looting of containers. One broken container had scattered foam insulation and hamburger meat patties all over the beach.
Debris and oil have been seen inside Tauranga harbor, the country's biggest export port, but operations were unaffected.
More than 50 tonnes of oil have been recovered from 25 km (16 miles) of long, golden beaches, a magnet for surfers. However, each high tide was washing more on the beaches.
"Our focus is on recovering oil from wherever we find it and we will go in day by day until this is over," said Maritime NZ spokesman Nick Quinn.
Hundreds of residents ignored warnings to stay away from the beaches and joined official clean up teams, including soldiers, to scrape up clumps of fuel oil, some as large as dinner trays, into plastic bags and large bins.
Booms placed over some harbor entrances appeared to have kept oil out of wetland and wildlife habitats, but more than 200 dead seabirds have been recovered and teams of naturalists have scrubbed and treated scores more for oil contamination.
(Editing by Ron Popeski)