The Shetland Oil Disaster: Gales threat to battered oil tanker: Foul weather disrupts efforts of low-flying pilots to disperse six-mile slick Gales threat to battered oil tanker

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EMERGENCY TEAMS raced against the weather yesterday, trying to head off an ecological disaster on Shetland as the tanker Braer continued to spew thousands of tons of oil into the sea.

Pilots in six ageing aircraft flew repeated missions in dangerous conditions spraying dispersants on parts of a slick from the tanker extending for six miles, with winds whipping oily pollution on to farmland. They had only a few short hours before darkness closed in. They will try again from first light today, although fresh gales are expected, threatening to break up the vessel.

Last night the tanker's owners, B & H Ship Management, said experts from the salvage company Smit-Tak had established that the hull of the vessel was in one piece and there were hopes that an operation to pump oil from the Braer could begin today.

The Braer is insured to the extent of pounds 466m, and around pounds 52m looks likely to be available as compensation for damage. Taxpayers and environmental groups could eventually end up paying any additional clean-up costs.

Last night, John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, announced the remit of a broad official inquiry into the disaster. It will look at the causes of the incident and action taken to prevent it. It will also examine the tanker's seaworthiness, the crew's competence and navigational safety and what was done immediately after the tanker ran into difficulty.

The investigation is almost certain to look into delays in calling a tug, while the captain contacted his New York office, and into the time taken for the tug to leave Lerwick harbour.

Questions also remain over why the Braer's captain left his ship as it neared Horse Island, just off Sumburgh Head, then asked to be winched back on board as the vessel drifted towards the Shetland mainland.

This could have contributed to a loss of valuable time needed to get a tow line on board. One tug owner yesterday claimed the disaster could have been avoided if the crew had been left on board. Barry Cork said his tug reached the tanker at 9.38am on Tuesday, but there was no one to give him a line. If there had been, the tug could have towed the Braer clear.

'It was not until nearly two hours later that I believe two pilots and two members of the crew were put back on board to get a line across. They did get a messenger rope between our tug and the ship, but this parted just about the time the tanker went aground.'

There is still no clear picture of what went wrong with the tanker's engines. Doubts remain over the crew's explanation for the Braer's difficulties. Norwegian investigators said they were working on scenarios other than the suggestion that water got into the tanker's fuel.

Yesterday, the DC3 Dakota aircraft sprayed around 120 tonnes of dispersants, but foul weather and furious seas made their efforts appear nearly pointless. A Dutch salvage team was unable to get on board the tanker to try to pump out the remaining oil. No expert would venture any estimate of how much of the 85,000 tonnes of oil the Braer carried has leaked, although Lord Caithness, Minister for Shipping, said at worst about half the cargo could have spilled.

The engine room is holed and the stern has sunk. Black fuel oil from the bunkers has gushed out to mingle with the brown light crude cargo. The environmental damage was already showing, with hundreds of seabirds washed up dead.

First light yesterday revealed the ship slightly closer to the cliff edge, still shifting under the shock of huge waves, but in one piece. The slick is now some six miles long, extending around the south- western tip of Shetland and moving slowly northwards.

Westerly and south-westerly winds are tending to prevent a rapid spread. Huge waves and winds are doing more to disperse the oil than any human action. But large quantities of oil droplets are being blown on to grazing lands near the coast. Sir Hector Monro, the Scottish environment minister, said he would look into ways of helping farmers.

Only one large beach has been oiled so far, Quendale Bay, but no clean-up has started. The Dakota pilots skimmed as low as 30ft (10m) over waves dropping chemical dispersant. But they were able to spray only part of the slick since the airspace near cliffs was too turbulent for safe flying.

Sir Hector said he did not believe a large ship with such a potentially destructive cargo should have sailed through the 22-mile wide straits between Orkney, Shetland and Fair Isle in such a storm.

Yesterday Mike Hudner, the chief executive of the Braer's owner, said that the ship was entitled to use the straits and the line's other tankers would continue to do so.

(Photograph omitted)