Unless a dangerous, last-ditch operation on the high seas succeeds, a massive cargo ship will smash into the southwestern coast of France in the next 48 hours, authorities say.
"We will do everything within our power to succeed," said Vice-Adm. Emmanuel De Oliveira of France's Atlantic Maritime Prefecture of Monday morning's Hail Mary salvage maneuver. "If this does not succeed, the Modern Express will run aground on the sandy coast . . . between Monday night and Tuesday night."
The dramatic maritime salvage operation seems like something out of a Hollywood movie, complete with stormy weather, helicopter rescues and a runaway ship headed towards a national park and a scenic seaside resort.
But it's real.
And it might not have a happy ending.
The saga began on Jan. 26, when the Modern Express, a 535-foot Panamanian-flagged freighter travelling from Gabon to the French port of Le Havre, began listing severely to one side.
In a risky rescue operation captured on camera, the ship's 22 crew members clung to the tilting ship's topside railing until a Spanish helicopter crew could come in and sweep them off to safety on Tuesday.
Since then, the unmanned cargo ship has drifted uncontrollably in the Bay of Biscay between Spain and France.
The ship is currently on course to run aground in the Landes region, near both the popular seaside resort of Biarritz and the Landes de Gascogne Regional Natural Park, a protected stretch of coastline, wetlands and pine forest.
The ship's cargo — 3,600 tons of timber and construction equipment — would only cause "limited" environmental impact, De Oliveira told reporters. But the Modern Express is also holding 300 tons of diesel fuel that could contaminate the picturesque Landes coast.
If the ship does run aground, however, French officials have vowed to act quickly to prevent an environmental and touristic catastrophe.
"We would put in place [an emergency plan] on sea and land in order to process and filter pollutants if they were to be discharged," De Oliveira said on Sunday. "If there is a leak, we will confine the oil to dams and beams around the gas oil that flows to the sea, then treat this gas with absorbent and pumps, and of course we will empty the diesel fuel from ship's holds as quickly possible."
(Officials also point out that the Modern Express's 300 tons of fuel pale compared to that contained by an oil tanker. The Exxon Valdez, for instance, spilled approximately 35,000 tons.)
For nearly a week, French and Spanish officials have tried to corral the ship. But the ship's mysterious mechanical failures and bad weather have complicated the effort.
It is "totally impossible [to] put the cargo ship upright," De Oliveira said.
"Unfortunately, it isn't possible to approach the ship by sea, either by boat or by tug, due to strong winds and large waves," he added, according to French newspaper Sud Ouest. "Only a helicopter approach is possible."
On Friday, Dutch company SMIT Salvage dropped four men onto the ship in a bold attempt to attach a tug line to the Modern Express. They succeeded, only for the tug line to snap due to violent waves pulling the tethered boats apart. One of the men suffered minor injuries and was evacuated, according to Sea News. Choppy seas, meanwhile, prevented further attempts on Saturday or Sunday.
"Today the sea is the strongest," De Oliveira said Sunday.
On Monday, the salvage crew is set to take advantage of a narrow window of milder weather to make one last attempt to rein in the runaway ship.
If that fails, the Modern Express could make a messy landing on the Landes coast as soon as Monday evening.
"In this case . . . we will identify the point of grounding and time expected for beaching," De Oliveira said, "and we will accompany the vessel to the end."