Tanker lost steerage just before crash

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The pilot on board the Sea Empress tanker when it ran aground off Milford Haven had radioed the port authority with an urgent message to say the vessel had lost steerage minutes before it ran aground.

Within 15 minutes of the pilot joining the vessel and sending the call for help the vessel grounded and began spilling oil. Details of the call have been given to the marine inspectors investigating the incident.

But yesterday Captain Peter Cooney, the managing director of the ship's managers, Acomarit, based in Glasgow, claimed there been no mechanical failure on board. He said the ultimate responsibility lay with the master and pilot. He said: "It is with these two gentlemen that we shall find the problem."

The pilot has been identified as Captain Jonathan Arnold, and the Russian master was Eduard Bolgov.

The Government yesterday ordered a widening of the inquiry into the Sea Empress disaster to include salvage operations, as Sir George Young, Secretary of State for Transport, was accused in the Commons of "appaling complacency".

Disclosing that he had asked the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents to extend the scope of his investigation, Sir George said it was "all too easy" to criticise the salvage efforts from the comfort of an armchair or studio. "Nonetheless, for all their herculean efforts the vessel remained stranded for five days and some 65,000 tonnes of oil have been spilt," he said in a statement to MPs. "We must find out why."

Ms Short dismissed the MAIB investigation as "not an adequate response" and called for an independent inquiry.

In Milford Haven yesterday inspectors from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch were gathering evidence. Already a number of key theories on how the ship became stranded on rocks at St Anne's Head have been forwarded to the inspectors. The adequacy of Milford Haven's marine accident plan, according to sources, will feature prominently in the inquiry.

Since it was privatised 10 years ago the number of tugs has been cut from eight to four, and the number of pilots employed to guide vessels through waters has been halved from 12 to six.

They now work alone instead of in couples, and they are also sent to meet ships much closer to the port. This leaves the pilots far less margin to correct errors that may have been made on the ship's way into the port.

There is also concern that the pounds 10m radar that covers the area, installed in 1985, has not been working properly since September.

A coastguard spokesman confirmed the radar was also not working properly when the tanker, Borga, went aground three and a half months ago, in the same waters as the Sea Empress. It is understood that St Anne's Head was a potential blind spot for the port authority's radar.

The authority maintain this would have little bearing on the ship's ability to take itself safely into the harbour. The said at the time of the grounding there was "good visibility".

However, Captain John Thistlewaite, a North Sea oil maritime consultant, said that any radar deficiencies, "would have made a tremendous difference. The port would not have known fully where the ship was and how soon it needed to get a pilot on board."

The Russian crew of the Sea Empress were evacuated last week to a hotel in Fishguard, where they were kept up the watchful eye of Texaco lawyers. The crew have all been tested for alcohol intake, but Captain Jonathan Arnold, the pilot, allegedly refused an alcohol test although there is no suggestion that he had consumed any whatsoever.

The Sea Empress was safely berthed at a disused jetty in Milford Haven yesterday. Smaller tankers will begin pumping her remaining cargo off this afternoon.

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Leading article, page 14

The price of oil, page 15