New reality TV series follows marine salvager

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William Stender III has just returned from the Straits of Gibraltar, where he and his team of salvagers pulled 70,000 tons of scrap off a ship that had run aground on the mass of rock that juts into the narrow channel separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Mediterranean Sea.

Stender’s rugged good looks, complete with sun-bleached hair and blue eyes crinkled from years spent fighting the elements, make him ripe for a turn as the next reality star.

And he’ll get that chance when “Salvage Code Red,” the latest real-life adventure series from the National Geographic Channel, airs several episodes over the next several months featuring Stender’s Titan Salvage team.

Nearly 20 years of salvage experience have made the Bangor Township man an expert on how to clean up the mess – and avoid environmental disasters – when a ship goes aground, tips over or sinks into the black depths of one of the world’s watery graves.

“It’s going to be a good show,” said Stender, 44.

National Geographic has been filming the Titan Salvage team for about three years. And Stender, a 1982 graduate of Essexville-Hampton Garber High School, just signed a release with Dreamworks Studios for a Steven Spielberg movie based on the rescue of the Cougar Ace, a 55,000-ton ship which nearly flipped over when its ballast system malfunctioned, pumping all the water to tanks on just one side of the ship.

The Cougar Ace, in fact, is what first caught the attention of National Geographic, whose cameramen were in the Bering Sea filming “Deadliest Catch” when they spotted the Titan crew at work. Salvagers were flown 300 miles out to the ship by the U.S. Coast Guard, who had first rescued all of the ship’s employees.

After righting the ship, which was loaded with 4,700 Mazda vehicles headed to North America, the Titan crew towed the ship back to harbor.

All of the cars, though most sustained no damage, were sent to a scrapyard, Stender said. He thought he might get a free car out of the deal, but that didn’t happen.

“Then it was off to the next one,” Stender said.

The first priority of salvaging consists of securing a ship to prevent its contents from leaking into the water, as oil or coal spills can devastate local fishing economies.

Like the Russian coal carrier that was taking a full load to Japan. After an explosion blew a hole in the ship’s sea chest – which draws in water to cool the engines – Stender’s crew unloaded the coal and sealed up the ship. They came back a couple of months later, dragged the ship up on the beach and cut it up for scrap.

“By the time the sea got done with it, it was junk,” Stender said of the ship.

Stender got his salvaging start in the family business. William W. Stender Marine Contractors was founded by his grandfather in 1941. He went to diving school when he was about 16, but not before his father, William Stender Jr. – who took over the business in 1978 – tested his mettle.

“We got thrown into the pool a few times with scuba gear to try it out,” Stender said.

Now Stender is also licensed to use explosives on a job, he’s a diver medical technician, a welder, a crane operator, a firefighter, and he’s working on a license to fly a helicopter.

Stender began working for Titan – one of the top salvage experts in the world – in 1990 after the explosion of the Jupiter while it unloaded gasoline at the Total Petroleum dock in Bay City.

Titan Salvage underbid the Stender company and got the job of salvaging the Jupiter from the Saginaw River, but needed divers. So Stender hired on.

Now 19 years and about 190 salvaged ships later, Stender says he’s been to nearly every corner of the world.

In fact, he said, it’s easier to name the places he hasn’t been: Australia, China and Russia.

Some places take their toll on him.

Tristan da Cunha, known as the remotest island in the world, was formed from volcanic ash in the South Atlantic Ocean. Located between Cape Town South Africa and Buenos Aires, Argentina, it took Stender and his crew six days to get there by boat after an oil platform busted loose and ended up on the island.

He spent about six weeks there, refloating the rig and moving it out to 12,000 feet of water, where it was sunk. The rig, about the size of a city block, would have been too costly to scrap, Stender said.

While on the island, populated with about 300 people, Stender’s cell phone didn’t work. Luckily, the local store had just got hooked up to the Internet, so he was able to keep in touch with his family.

Stender typically spends about two or three months away from home before getting a couple of weeks off. His wife, Tammy Stender, often goes with him. The couple has been married for about a year and Stender says life is better when she’s along.

But he’s done this all his life, he says, and his children are used to it.

“When they were small I’d be home and they’d look at me like, ‘Who’s this person?'” Stender said.

His 11-year-old son, William Stender IV, has no plans to become a diver, Stender said. But the call of the water siren is strong and William IV is fascinated by marine GPS systems and hydrodynamics – the study of fluids in motion. He may have a future in nautical engineering, designing ships that won’t need to be salvaged.

And that’s OK with dad, who says salvaging is a dangerous business.

“If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re not coming back,” Stender said.

www.mlive.com

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