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Obituary: Patrick McCrystal

Patrick McCrystal, shipwright, born 1923, died Glasgow 19 February 1993.

PATRICK McCRYSTAL, a former shipwright, died last Friday in Glasgow from mesothelioma, an incurable cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. McCrystal will be remembered on the Clyde as a man of enormous fortitude and character, and as a committed campaigner for the welfare and rights of asbestos victims. He was also a born teacher and communicator, who took great pride in his trade and inspired listeners with his descriptions of Glasgow's history and the early days of the Clyde. He was also fascinated in how things worked and was one of the rare men who could make the workings of a torque or a lathe sound interesting.

McCrystal was born in 1923 into a large Glaswegian family of Irish extraction. At 16 he signed up as an apprentice with Fairfield Shipbuilding Company, where he was one of the first Catholics to be accepted by the yard. For the next 25 years he worked directly on the ships, before becoming a craft training instructor and eventually moving into management.

It is typical of McCrystal that he even took the trouble to write his own obituary. Here he describes how carelessly asbestos was handled in the shipyards during the Forties and Fifties. Despite the fact that the health inspectorate and the shipyard owners were well aware of the dangers, no protective clothing or masks were ever issued and the men were not warned of the risks.

Boards of asbestos fibre were sawn in enclosed spaces, asbestos cement was mixed by hand, and at Fairfields the powder was even stacked in bales in the shed were the workmen ate their lunches. The engine room and boiler rooms, where asbestos was used as an insulating material and for lagging pipes, were especially polluted. During some stages of production the shipwrights would return home white as bakers from the dust.

Until last year McCrystal hoped that, not having worked directly on the ships since 1965, he might have avoided the terrible consequences of asbestos poisoning. But one morning he woke up very short of breath. Mesothelioma, a cancer of the membrane surrounding the lung, was diagnosed. McCrystal then started his work for asbestos victims.

He was also the victim of a quirk of Scottish law. In Scotland, industrial injury claims for 'pain and suffering' die with the claimant, leaving his or her family with only a fraction of the compensation they would get south of the border. For the insurance companies this clearly provides an incentive to delay, disputing the claim until the last possible moment. Meanwhile for the victims and their families, the last stages of the illness can become a desperate, legal paper chase with death.

At last this anomaly is about to be rectified - and a bill bringing Scottish law in line with legislation south of the border has cross- party support and has already passed its second reading at Westminster.

McCrystal did eventually receive compensation from his employers, with a settlement agreed on the very morning that his case was due to come to court.

McCrystal had been building his own boat, a 43ft ketch and at the time of his death it was very near completion. His dream had been to wile away his retirement sailing to the Mediterranean and then on to Australia - which he had visited while in service during the war. Sadly, he never managed it.