Once-famous drug smuggling freighter finally headed for scrap heap

TACOMA, Wash. — It was once a famous drug smuggling freighter seized in with 37 tons of marijuana stored in its cargo hold. Now, the Helena Star is finally headed for the scrap heap.

Crews under contract with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources began raising the old ship from the bottom of the Hylebos waterway in Tacoma where it sank in January 2013.  Jim McLeish, who works next door, came over to watch, take some pictures, and remember the once notorious freighter.

“I don’t know, it’s been a long time,” laughed McLeish.

The Helena Star made history in 1978 when the U.S. Coast Guard seized it 130 miles off the coast of Washington state with 37 tons of marijuana onboard valued at $75 million. At the time it was the largest drug seizure in the Northwest. Ten people were convicted in connection with the seizure, including champion freestyle skier Mike Lund of Sequim. Lund was arrested in 2001 after assuming a new identity and fleeing the country.

For 36 years, the Dutch-built ship sat unused and unwanted.   It was moored in Tacoma awaiting the scrap heap, but that plan fell apart when the Star’s owners went bankrupt.

“Divers went down one time and they patched it and they told the people that owned it that, you know, it’s pretty much a lost cause,” said McLeish.

Eventually the aging ship starting falling  apart as well, taking on water and sinking, almost dragging its sister derelict vessel The Golden West down with it.

The Coast Guard attempted a salvage plan at one point, but that didn't work. Finally the state department of natural resources had holes in the ship's hull patched and started pulling it from the water on Tuesday.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed that all goes well,” said Melissa Ferris, manager of the  DNR’s derelict vessel removal program. “Then we’ll be towing her to a shipyard in Seattle to be cut up.”

Ferris said it will cost about $1.2 million to raise the Helena Star, tow it to Seattle, remove any remaining hazardous materials and cut it up for scrap.

Then, the once famous drug smuggling freighter will be melted down and the steel sold.

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