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WWII tanker off Calif. coast may still pose threat

August 29, 2010

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SAN FRANCISCO—A tanker ship torpedoed by a Japanese submarine during World War II near California's scenic Central Coast may still represent a danger to the environment, according to scientists investigating the rusting hulk.

The 440-foot Montebello has been lying under 900 feet of water, four miles from the coast of Cambria, since Dec. 23, 1941 -- 16 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Nearly 70 years later, scientists with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute are trying to determine if the 3.5 million gallons of crude oil in its hold are still there, and whether the sludge can threaten the coastline.

This month, a submersible robot from the institute reached the wreck and sent back three-dimensional sonar images of the ship.

The information is being analyzed, but understanding the state of the ship and any oil left on board will be a slow process requiring additional dives, researchers said.

Jack Hunter, an underwater archaeologist for Caltrans, was part of a 1996 dive that approached the ship. He thinks the oil is still on board, and worries the wreck has deteriorated since he looked at it.

"The structures of the ship are still intact," he said after looking at the sonar images, "but they could collapse at some point."

The Montebello, a Union Oil Co. tanker, was torpedoed after leaving for Vancouver, British Columbia, from the small Central Coast seaport of San Luis.

The officers and crew were worried because there had been several attacks on American ships off the West Coast. The risk was so high that Montebello's skipper refused to take the ship to sea. He quit and had to be replaced.

The ship set off at midnight. By 5:45 a.m., two torpedoes had hit, said Dick Quincy, 91, who was a seaman on the ship.

They were unarmed, and as the men jumped into lifeboats, the submarine fired at them from its deck. By 6:30 a.m., the ship had stood on her bow and slid under, according to a report published the next day. No one was killed.

"You held your breath," Quincy said. "It was a wild time."

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Information from: San Francisco Chronicle, http://www.sfgate.com/chronicle

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