Ice Becomes Nome Lifeline After It Is Checked Very Carefully

The ice that threatened to keep a fuel tanker from reaching Nome, Alaska, became a lifeline today as it refroze sufficiently to allow men and snow machines  to stretches hoses from the ship to a pipeline buried near the harbor.

The 1.3 million gallons of  fuel is expected to start flowing tonight.

The Russian tanker Renda plowed close to Nome behind the Coast Guard icebreakerHealy, but then had to wait for the smashed ice to reform.

"We got everything ready last night, and they will be ready to go in the daylight hour," said Jason Evans, chairman of the Sitnasuak Native Corp. "Everyone is working at a steady pace at the moment."

"The next step is to hook up the hose to the city of Nome's header," said Stacey Smith, manager of Vitus Marine LLC which handles these chores for many Alaskan towns.  "It's basically a pipeline that comes out of the ground and is able to receive fuel."

The steps needed to connect the ship and the town were delicate and somewhat risky. The ice had to be strong enough to hold a crew and a posse of snow machines to pull two sets of heavy hoses across 2,100 feet of Bering Sea ice.

The first steps to make sure the ice was strong were taken by men who ventured out onto the reformed ice. They advanced towards the ship slowly, drilling holes every 50 feet to gauge its thickness. The ice was three feet deep near the ship and even thicker in other spots.

One determined that it was secure, the snow machines were brought onto the ice to pull the hoses into place.

The scheduled was complicated by only four or five hours of daylight in Alaska at this time of the year which doesn't begin until 11:30 a.m.

"I think they are still getting everything setup and tested, that process takes a few hours, so we're hopeful they'll get all the testing procedures done prior to the sun going down and start pumping fuel this evening," Evans told ABC News.

Lights from the port that are 20 feet high will light up the area during the pumping, which is expected to take about 36 hours.

Smith said her company has not had to break through ice with a ship before, but otherwise the operation was not unusual for her.

 "This is what our company does. It's everyday work for us," said Smith. "We have not broken through the ice to make a delivery before. This is a historical event in Alaska. Once the hose is rolled out, it is absolutely routine procedure."

The Russian tanker arrived a half-mile from Nome after a 300-mile journey. The tanker began its journey from Russia in mid-December to pick up diesel fuel in South Korea. The vessel then headed to Dutch Harbor, Alaska, where it picked up unleaded gasoline.

Weather delayed the tanker's haul to the Alaska coast, forcing the Coast Guard icebreaker to clear a path through thick ice and strong ocean currents.

The small town's 3,500 residents' supplies of diesel fuel, gasoline and home heating fuel was expected to run out in March or April. Officials say the next fuel delivery for Nome won't happen until May or June.

Smith says once the transfer of fuel successfully finishes, the Coast Guard will have to once again lead the Russian tanker through a 300 mile long journey of ice until open water.