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No-risk strategy vindicated by safe arrival

The 172 passengers who arrived safely in Calais last night were not evacuated from the Stena Challenger while it was beached because of the dangers involved in such procedures.

There are three ways of getting people off a ship, but Jim Hannah, a Stena spokesman, admitted that all three "posed perils" for the passengers. "There was a risk of personal injury", he said.

Although the ferry is fitted with lifeboats which can be lowered from their davits, this would have been a very perilous operation because of the strong waves running onto the beach where the ship was grounded. Mr Hannah said: "It is much easier to evacuate in the middle of the channel in a relatively predictable sea."

The second method involves the use of large chutes on which people, wearing lifejackets, slide into the sea and are then picked up by boats or inflatables. This has obvious dangers as well as resulting in those rescued getting very wet.

Alternatively, the passengers could have been winched off by helicopter. This too, has obvious risks and would also have been very lengthy since the passengers would have had to be taken off one by one.

Shipping experts agreed with the ferry captain's decision to leave the passengers on the ship. Richard Clayton, news editor of Fair Play a magazine for the shipping industry, said: "The big danger with these `ro-ro' ferries is when they get holed. They get water on the car deck and capsize quickly. But in this case, there was no damage and the passengers were not at risk, so the captain was right to leave them there."

In a report published earlier this summer, the all-party Commons committee on transport expressed concerns about the lack of practice for evacuation procedures.

The committee found that the biggest test had involved a ship loaded with 500 passengers because the ferry companies said that any tests with larger number would be too dangerous. The committee recommended that a test evacuation with 1,000 passengers should be carried out by the coastguard.

Paul Flynn MP, a Labour member of the committee, said yesterday: "We felt that the procedures were a joke. Apparently when the marine chute was tested with service personnel, many refused to use it because it was so frightening." He said that while the ferries claimed that the ships could be evacuated in half an hour, this assumed perfect conditions.

Mr Flynn said: "We felt they could barely muster the passengers together in half an hour, let alone get them off the ship. The ships have been turned into floating supermarkets and are a maze.

"It is no good evacuation procedures being designed for use in calm conditions or in the open sea. That's not when accidents happen," he said.