The mid-section is thought to have come apart from the stern and bow and the hull bottom was reported to be cracked from end to end, raising fears that all 84,500 tonnes of oil on board could be discharged into the sea.
Witnesses described how oil was spurting 20ft into the air before being blown on to rocks by winds reaching 100mph. As much as 20,000 tonnes was said to have drained from the ship in six hours.
As fears rose that the vessel would disintegrate rapidly in the hurricane-force winds, the Government ordered a second and more wide-ranging inquiry into the disaster in the face of concerted pressure for firm action from its critics.
Lord Donaldson of Lymington, the former Master of the Rolls, has been asked to advise on whether further measures are appropriate and feasible to protect the UK coastline from pollution by merchant shipping.
In Shetland, severe weather has made salvage work impossible. Captain Geert Kofferman, the salvage chief from Smit Tak, estimates that more than half of the ship's cargo has been discharged into the sea. Gales are forecast to continue for at least another 24 hours, by the end of which most
of the cargo is likely to have been discharged.
The announcement of the second inquiry, in a Commons statement by John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, was being taken as a concession to opposition and public criticisms that the Department of Trade and Industry's Marine Accident Investigation Branch investigation would do little to prevent environmental disasters.
Labour MPs appeared satisfied, despite its containing a rider from Mr MacGregor that Lord Donaldson should give consideration to the 'international and economic implications of any new measures'.
While this could give Lord Donaldson a convenient get-out in the likely event of heavy opposition from the oil and merchant shipping lobbies, Labour MPs, including John Prescott, transport spokesman, broadly welcomed the wider inquiry.
It is flagged as a public one but Lord Donaldson will have the freedom to hear evidence in private if he believes that is necessary.
Ian Lang, Secretary of State for Scotland, told MPs that a 'bridging fund' of up to several million pounds would begin paying compensation to farmers and fishermen while insurance claims were settled.
Emphasising that the 'polluter pays' principle applied in the case of the Braer, Mr MacGregor said pounds 50m would be available from the vessel's insurer and the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund.
Mr Lang said that an ecological steering group would develop strategies for dealing with the implications of the oil spillage for the islands' natural development.
Angry islanders are not satisfied with statements in the Commons yesterday suggesting that recompense would have to come from the polluters.
Magnus Flaws, a local councillor, said: 'This is not what we are wanting to hear. What we need is money now. Who is going to pay the salmon farmer who has lost his harvest. If it is left to the polluter to pay it could take three years or more.'