Pilot may have boarded stricken tanker too late

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A conflicting picture of events leading up to the grounding of the supertanker Sea Empress has been given to the government inspectors investigating the disaster, it emerged yesterday.

Accounts given by the company that manages the supertanker and by Milford Haven Port Authority are being examined by the team from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch. The last, crucial moments before the 147,000-tonne tanker became stricken off St Ann's Head, near Milford Haven, Britain's busiest mainland oil port, and the subsequent salvage operations to free the grounded vessel, will be the inquiry's main focus.

The managers of the vessel, Acomarit, maintain the pilot whose job was to guide the ship into port boarded the vessel at 7.38pm, not 7.53pm, as port officials earlier suggested.

There is also speculation that the pilot may have boarded the vessel later than was routine for a tanker of the size of the Sea Empress. The time to deal with unexpected difficulties would have been less.

Captain Mark Andrews, harbour master, said pilots normally boarded in good time to discuss a plan of action with the master, in this case, the Russian captain, Eduard Bolgov.

"It wouldn't be normal practice to put the pilot on so late," he said. "The difficulty can be when it takes time getting the pilot on board."

There are discrepancies over suggestions that the Sea Empress was rushing to enter Milford Haven in order to avoid low water and thus be forced to wait for the next high tide, almost eight hours later.

Michael Hyslop, the general manager of the Port Authority, said: "I'm not aware of any evidence she was rushing. There was plenty of water, 16 metres, under her."

Captain Peter Cooney, managing director of Acomarit, said: "If the port authority say the pilot was on board 15 minutes before the vessel grounded, this is in conflict with our own information. We are sure the pilot was on board a half-hour before the grounding."

More than 70,000 tonnes of oil has gushed into the sea and is still being dealt with, in a large-scale clean-up operation.

The bill for the damages from the disaster could exceed pounds 80m. Yesterday oil was beginning to affect wildlife on Lundy Island, 12 miles off north Devon, and a bird-rescue operation was under way.

The clean-up round the Pembrokeshire coast was continuing amid hopes that rough weather over the weekend will help disperse the oil slicks.

Final moments, page 2