Nine die in fireball as ships collide: Panamanian-registered bulk-carrier which struck British petrol tanker may have broken fog safety rules

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ACCIDENT experts investigating a collision between two ships which killed nine people off the Belgian coast will today set out to discover why a Panamanian-registered cargo ship appeared to break marine regulations over travel in thick fog.

Seven crewmen died and two are missing, feared dead, after a fireball engulfed the British Trent as her cargo of 24,000 tons of unleaded petrol ignited following the collision with the Western Winner, a Hong Kong-owned bulk-carrier.

The Western Winner's crew escaped serious injury and she limped into the Dutch port of Flushing last night. British Marine Accident Investigation Branch investigators are expected to question the crew today.

The British Trent, owned by BP Shipping, had just left Antwerp, having dropped off her estuary pilot, when the collision happened. Conditions were foggy and regulations stipulate that if a ship is in doubt of the movements of a nearby vessel, she should slow down or stop.

Yesterday, BP strongly defended its crew. A senior official said there was no evidence to suggest its officers or ship were to blame. 'We think the Panamanian ship hit British Trent towards the bow and then scraped down the port side,' he said.

BP named the dead as chief officer Adrian Hirst, from Jarrow, Tyne and Wear; third officer David Cox, from Co Cork, Irish Republic; third officer Robert Bold, from Yorkshire; radio officer Kevin Kielthy, from Co Wexford, Ireland; third engineer John Gray, from Sunderland, Tyne and Wear; and two crewmen, oiler Christopher John, and wiper Egerton Smith, both from Sierra Leone.

Missing were electrician Matthew Clements, from Bournemouth, Dorset, and able seaman Georg Wesley, from Sierra Leone. A search for them was abandoned last night. The toll could have been higher but for the presence of the Belgian pilot cutter which had left British Trent minutes before the collision. She turned back to rescue crew, many of whom, blinded and choked by acrid smoke, could not see to operate lifeboats and jumped into the blazing sea.

Charles Demey, Ostend's chief maritime pilot, said: 'Those who died were all burnt to death in the blazing sea around the vessel.'

The captain of the British Trent, Stanley Montague, 48, of Chelmsford, Essex, was recovering in a Bruges hospital yesterday. He told colleagues he was 'slightly singed'.

Kathleen Hirst, whose husband died, was one of those rescued. Her parents said last night after talking to her: 'They were both asleep in their cabin when they were woken by the crash and a tremendous explosion. It was all over so quickly - they both ran out on deck and she was lowered into a pilot cutter along with the wives of other officers. Adrian ran back to tackle the fire. It was typical of him - he would have been straight there in the thick of things.'

The British Trent burnt fiercely but Belgian fire tugs had the blaze under control by late afternoon. Last night a two-mile slick, 60 yards wide, had formed offshore. 'We are satisfied it poses no environmental risk and will disperse,' said Captain Mark Claus, director of the Belgian Marine Administration.

David Banks, a London solicitor representing the Western Winner's owners, spoke last night to her captain, Gang Dae-Pung, who had had a 'very traumatic experience'.

(Photograph omitted)