FALLEN shipping containers from the stricken ship Rena have begun washing up on Mt Maunganui beach in New Zealand's Bay of Plenty this morning, with officials now preparing to close the beach.
Maritime NZ said the beach would be closed until the contents and hazardous nature of at least four containers can be determined.
About 30 containers were floating in the water around the ship last night and nzherald.co.nz's Hayden Donnell said some of those that had washed up onto Mt Maunganui beach appeared to contain freeze dried coffee and beef.
Meantime a source close to the disaster authorities has told nzherald.co.nz that salvage experts have been winched onto the Rena to assess what state it is in.
Last night, the container ship - which has leaked at least 380 tonnes of fuel oil into the sea - was lying in virtually two pieces on a precarious 18 degree list on the Astrolabe Reef.
Maritime New Zealand spokeswoman Sophie Hazelhurst said the ship had settled onto the reef overnight, however it was expected to begin moving around with the next high tide at 9am.
Rena crack widening
A crack running around the ship's hull was steadily widening in heavy seas, and officials believed it was only a matter of time before the vessel split in two.
Three tug boats were waiting either to hold the stern on the reef as authorities try to remove oil from the Rena's fuel tanks or to tow the stern to shallow water.
The weather is forecast to ease today, with 10-20 knot winds today and three metre swells.
Second officer arrested
Last night the second officer of the doomed MV Rena was charged over his role in the disaster as the ship continued to disintegrate, escalating New Zealand's worst marine environmental disaster.
He is due to appear in the Tauranga District Court at 10am.
The officer, who was in charge of the watch when the ship ran full-speed into a Bay of Plenty reef last week, will appear in court today charged with operating a vessel in a manner causing unnecessary danger or risk.
The charge carries a maximum fine of $10,000 or a maximum jail term of 12 months.
The Rena's captain appeared in Tauranga District Court on the same charge yesterday and was remanded until next Wednesday.
More charges are likely to be laid against the captain, whose identity has been suppressed because of fears of a public backlash.
Rena crew in motel
The rest of the Rena's crew - evacuated from the ship on Tuesday - were last night in a Tauranga motel, as speculation mounted over the cause of the grounding.
Transport Minister Steven Joyce confirmed he had heard suggestions that the crew were celebrating the captain's 44th birthday, but he did not wish to comment.
Other insiders have suggested the ship may have been taking a shortcut to meet Tauranga's harbour pilot for berthing.
As the environmental crisis deepened, authorities last night issued health warnings to those living near Bay of Plenty beaches that the smell of fuel oil would get worse and advising them to keep windows shut.
Fears over the cost of the catastrophe were mounting last night.
Toll of disaster hits home
The toll the disaster has already inflicted on the Bay of Plenty was disturbingly clear from the air yesterday afternoon.
Six vessels had been mobilised to clean up the mess of battered containers, timber, cardboard, wrapping and other debris bobbing in the water amid a thick, purplish slick stretching kilometres southward from the ship.
Other containers - some ripped apart and emptied of their contents - could be seen being dashed against the rocky shores of Motiti Island, itself ringed by a greenish hue.
Containers still on the ship were pancaked on one another and threatening to tumble overboard, making conditions extremely dangerous for salvage crews on board.
Up to 70 containers have fallen overboard from the ship's deck.
Maritime New Zealand's on-scene commander, Nick Quinn, said he was confident he had the people, equipment and plans to cope with the increasing scale of the Rena disaster.
Oil expected to wash up for weeks
Oil was expected to continue washing up on Bay of Plenty beaches for weeks, which would result in around 10,000 tonnes of sandy waste.
Twenty teams totalling about 250 were working on the beaches and four vessels were in Tauranga's harbour to deal with any oil there.
Navy and air force helicopters were monitoring the oil movement.
The Rena's 17 crew members are understood to be scheduled to meet a senior official from the Philippine Embassy today. Giovanni Palec arrived in Tauranga from Wellington last night.
Maritime Union of New Zealand general secretary Joe Fleetwood said union representatives wanted to discuss issues with the crew, including serious worries about the conditions on board the Rena.
"We wanted to discuss things like how these guys are, their accommodation, back pay and even repatriation, but that might not happen because they could be called as witnesses to court."
The workers had put in "massive hours" beyond their collective agreement and had been intending to resolve a back-pay issue while the Rena was in Tauranga.