China suspends firefighting efforts after tanker explosion

Mohsen Bahrami, a spokesman for National Iranian Tanker Company, NITC, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the headquarters of the NITC, in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018. The Iranian company whose oil tanker burst into flames after a collision in the East China Sea says there is still hope of finding survivors. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

BEIJING — An explosion rocked a stricken oil tanker off the coast of Shanghai on Wednesday, forcing maritime authorities to suspend firefighting and rescue efforts, Chinese officials said.

China's ministry of transport said rescue vessels withdrew to a safe distance after the explosion on the Sanchi's bow, the latest setback in the multinational effort to extinguish the burning wreck and find more than 30 missing crewmembers.

The ship is still on fire, the ministry said.

Chinese officials have previously warned that the tanker could explode and sink, possibly triggering an environmental disaster.

The Sanchi was carrying nearly 1 million barrels of condensate, a type of gassy, ultra-light oil, when it collided Saturday evening with a freighter 257 kilometers (160 miles) off the coast and caught fire. Intense flames, bad weather and poor visibility have hampered rescue efforts.

The entire crew of the Panamanian-registered Sanchi — 30 Iranians and two Bangladeshis — went missing after its collision with the Chinese freighter CF Crystal. The cause of the collision remains unclear.

Rescuers on Tuesday found a body believed to be a sailor from the Iranian-operated tanker, while a search continued for the 31 other missing crew members.

The National Iranian Tanker Co., the Sanchi's operator, said Tuesday there was a chance that survivors were trapped in the ship's engine room.

"Since the vessel's engine room is not directly affected by the fire and is about 14 meters (46 feet) under water, there is still hope," NITC spokesman Mohsen Bahrami told The Associated Press.

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