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Feb 23, 2013 3:00 PM by Brad Lendon, CNN

Crews to begin removing parts of grounded U.S. Navy ship

(CNN) -- Crews have boarded a U.S. Navy minesweeper stranded on a Philippine reef to begin dismantling it, the state-run Philippine News Agency reported Friday.

Meanwhile, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet praised the crew of the USS Guardian for avoiding loss of life when the ship hit the reef early on the morning of January 17.

"From the point on which the ship grounded, the crew worked quite diligently, quite frankly. But even more importantly, they got all 79 of their crew members off that ship and safely back here to Japan," Adm. Cecil Haney said in an interview with the Armed Forces Network that was posted on the unit's YouTube channel.

"They've gone through quite a bit, but it shows you the resiliency of our sailors," Haney said after meeting with the crew at Sasebo Naval Base in Japan, where the Guardian has its home port.

The crew returned to the base on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu shortly after the ship hit the reef. They will remain together at Sasebo until the investigation completed, a Navy spokesman told CNN this month.

In the Philippines, the salvage ship Jascon 25 has taken up a position near the minesweeper on Tubbataha Reef, Lt. Cmdr. Armand Balilo, a Philippine Coast Guard spokesman, told the Philippine News Agency.

Stormy seas from a tropical depression passing through the Philippines had delayed efforts this week to get the ship in position.

The Navy plans to take parts of the 1,312-ton Guardian off piece-by-piece before cutting the hull up into three parts, according to a report in Stars and Stripes. The stern and bow of the 224-foot-long ship would be lifted off the reef intact, Lt. Frederick Martin, a Navy spokesman, told Stars and Stripes, but the middle portion of the hull is too damaged for that and would be cut into smaller pieces before removal.

Reports have said the operation to remove the ship from the reef would be complete in late March or early April, but a Navy spokesman told CNN that there was no firm estimate on when the work would be done.

"Although we are working as expeditiously as possible, we want to ensure this salvage is done safely while minimizing damage to the reef and surrounding environment," Lt. Anthony Falvo said in an e-mail to CNN.

The Tubbataha Reef is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the Guardian is estimated to have damaged about 4,000 square meters (about 43,000 square feet) of the reef. The Navy has pledged to clean up the debris created when waves stripped off pieces of fiberglass covering the wooden hull of the ship and to try to restore the reef as much as possible.

"The Navy prides itself on being good stewards of the environment and we have taken great care to protect Tubbataha Reef from further damage," Falvo said.

Philippine officials said last month that the country would seek compensation for reef damage. The U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, Harry Thomas Jr., has assured the Philippines that the United States "will provide appropriate compensation for damage to the reef caused by the ship."

The reef is home to a vast array of sea, air and land creatures, as well as sizable lagoons and two coral islands. About 500 species of fish and 350 species of coral can be found there, as can whales, dolphins, sharks, turtles and breeding seabirds, according to UNESCO.

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