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Coast Guard sinks ship set adrift by tsunami

The U.S. Coast Guard unleashed cannon fire Thursday at a Japanese vessel set adrift by last year's tsunami, stopping the ship's long, lonely voyage across the Pacific Ocean.

A Coast Guard cutter fired on the abandoned 164-foot Ryou-Un Maru in the waters of the Gulf of Alaska and more than 150 miles from land, spokesman Paul Webb said. He said it could take at least an hour to sink it.

Soon after they started firing, the ship burst into flames, began to take on water and list, Chief Petty Officer Kip Wadlow said. He said the vessel poses a significant hazard and that the Coast Guard has been warning mariners to stay away. Aviation authorities are also advising pilots to steer clear of the area.

Officials decided to sink the ship, rather than risk the chance of it running aground or endangering other vessels. The ship has no lights or communications system and has a tank that could carry more than 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel.

They don't know how much fuel, if any, is aboard. "It's less risky than it would be running into shore or running into [maritime] traffic," Webb said.

The ship had been destined for scrapping when the Japan earthquake struck, so there is no cargo on board, according to Webb.

A Canadian fishing vessel, the 62-foot Bernice C, claimed salvage rights over the ghost ship. The Coast Guard stopped its plans to fire so the Canadian crew could have a chance to take the stricken ship.

A Canadian official with knowledge of the situation told the Associated Press that the Bernice C was unable to tow the abandoned ship. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency studied the problem and decided it is safer to sink the ship and let the fuel evaporate in the open water.