Rescue helicopters airlifted 26 of the Russian crew to safety from the stricken vessel last night after her grounding renewed fears of a massive oil spill or even an explosion.
Residents of St Ann's Head in the Milford Haven estuary, including the lighthouse keeper, were evacuated as the tanker began to gush oil and the air filled with vapour; the 147,000-tonne ship has already lost part of her cargo of toxic crude since she first ran aground and was holed on Thursday night.
The RAF and Royal Navy Sea King helicopters defied the darkness and high winds to winch the crew members from the Sea Empress's deck as the vessel was pounded by heavy seas, which were expected to get worse early today with a force eight gale due in the area. A total of 28 essential crew and salvagers are remaining on board.
Although, earlier yesterday, the ship was successfully swung around to point her bows into the heightening swell, the operation to prepare her for offloading of oil today started to go wrong during the afternoon when a sudden squall, with 40-knot winds, snapped the tow ropes of three of the six tugs.
The tugs tried to pull her free but failed, and the decision was made to "put down" the vessel. That meant letting more sea water in to her intact tanks, which had the effect of grounding the full length of the vessel on a sand and shell bottom. The hope was that this would prevent the hull grating over rocks and suffering further ruptures. Late last night Joe Small, the marine pollution control-unit official who is co- ordinating the attempts to prevent an oil-spill disaster, said the supertanker was now stable. "It's not yet time to give up hope - we hope, come high tide, we will be able to get her off."
Two more tugs were heading for Milford Haven late last night to join the seven already on the scene.
The evacuees from St Ann's Head were taken to the nearby seaside village of Dale. "They're in here with us at the moment," said Sarah Cosnett, daughter of the landlord of Dale's Griffing Inn. "The plan is for them to sleep in the village hall."
If the Sea Empress can be refloated, the next task is to pump oil off her into a smaller, shallower tanker, the Star Bergen. That may allow the stricken vessel to rise in the water sufficiently for her to be towed into Milford Haven and safety.
Fears of an environmental disaster are vivid, because although Milford Haven is Britain's busiest tanker port with three huge refineries, the haven itself and the coastline and islets immediately outside it are some of the most beautiful coast, and finest seabird areas, in southern Britain.
So far the wind has blown the oil away from the islands, breeding grounds for half-a-million birds, and in any case the birds have not yet come to shore to breed. Some 200 razorbills, guillemots and cormorants now feeding in coastal waters are thought to have been oiled.
The Sea Empress was built in 1993 in Spain with no double hull. It is owned by a Greek Cypriot company registered in the flag-of-convenience state of Liberia and managed by a Glasgow-based company which uses Russian crews.
The Department of Transport, the ship's owners and the port authority have no explanation for how the Sea Empress ran aground with a pilot on board, although engine and steering failure have been ruled out. An accident investigation has begun.Reuse content