Ship carrying acid capsizes in Germany: police

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A ship carrying 2,400 tonnes of sulphuric acid capsized Thursday in Germany's Rhine river but the vessel's tanks seemed to be intact, authorities said, amid a frantic search for two missing crew members.

Traffic on the river, a major European shipping artery, was suspended following the accident, which took place around 5:00 am (0400 GMT) near Sankt Goar, northwest of the city of Mainz in western Germany.

"Two members of the crew were rescued but two others are missing," river police spokesman Paul-Heinz Meurisch said.

One of those missing is German, the other Czech, a Mainz police spokesman said.

Helicopters equipped with infrared cameras circled the area in what authorities described as a "frantic" search for the two remaining crew members.

The ship, the Waldhof, measures roughly 110 metres (360 feet) long and was completely turned over, with its keel above the waterline, but it was not immediately clear whether acid had leaked into the river, Meurisch said.

A spokesman for police in nearby Koblenz said that, according to the current state of the investigation, there was "no obvious damage" to the vessel's tanks.

"There does not seem to have been any acid leakage into the water, according to an initial, provisional investigation," said the spokesman, Ralf Schomisch.

Sulphuric acid is an extremely corrosive liquid.

Martin Mauermann, a spokesman for Germany's Federal Shipping Administration, said: "Until now, it has not been possible to establish whether acid has leaked out of the ship."

"We are not able to say at the current time how long shipping traffic will be blocked," he added.

The Waldhof was steaming north, towards the sea, authorities said and is likely to be a German ship, given the name, although this has not been confirmed.

The accident occurred near a celebrated rock outcropping known as "Lorelei", a mythic nymph who was said to lure mariners to their deaths with enchanting, hypnotic songs.

The site is above a particularly narrow point in the river where the current is very strong and many accidents have taken place in the past.

The scenic gorge is a major tourist draw, with holidaymakers from around the world taking cruises up and down the busy river.

Melting snow and rains have swollen waterways in the western German region but it was not immediately known if that was a factor in the accident.

In 2001, the Stolt Rotterdam caught fire while lying at the quays of the Bayer chemical company on the Rhine with around 1,800 tonnes of nitric acid aboard.

It took 10 hours for some 150 firefighters to bring the fire under control.

© 2011 AFP

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