'Bowbelle' decisions get mixed reception

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FAMILIES of the 51 people who died in the Marchioness pleasure boat tragedy in 1989 yesterday welcomed an announcement that the dredger Bowbelle, which collided with it, had been banned from the Thames.

Relatives were 'extremely disappointed', however, by a rejection by John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, of a recommendation by an independent inquiry into river safety for a review of rescue arrangements and equipment on the Thames.

The inquiry, set up because of the disaster, was critical of the Department of Transport, saying that it 'lacked the vision and drive to lead the river marine industry into accepting that high safety standards and commercial success were compatible'.

Lord Caithness, the Minister for Aviation and Shipping, disclosed at a meeting with relatives after publication of the report that a prohibition order had been served on the Bowbelle earlier this year because visibility from its bridge did not meet merchant shipping regulations.

The Bowbelle's sister vessel, the Bow Trader, had since been voluntarily withdrawn from the Thames by its owner, he said.

Patrick Allen of the Marchioness Solicitors' Steering Group said: 'We have been saying for a long time that it was too dangerous to allow boats like the Bowbelle, which cannot see forward properly, to sail on the Thames.'

The inquiry, headed by John Hayes, secretary general of the Law Society, made 22 recommendations including more spot checks on vessels, the recruitment of more safety specialists by the Department of Transport and the introduction of breath tests for skippers and crews.

The report called on the department to 'take a much higher profile in promoting safety among a variety of fragmented operators and regulators'.

Mr MacGregor said that the further review recommended by the inquiry would not be justified, but added: 'Action is, however, being taken to ensure that the lessons from the Marchioness disaster have been fully assimilated.' He said that the report's recommendations were being carefully considered.

He was establishing a series of district marine safety committees throughout the country which would review for each area the way in which responsibilities for safety, rescue and accident prevention were distributed.