Cargo ship 'did not respond to warnings'

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The Independent Online
THE crew of the Panamanian cargo ship involved in the fatal North Sea shipping disaster failed for 15 minutes to respond to radio messages warning that it was on collision course, it was alleged yesterday.

The captain of the pilot cutter which had helped guide the BP tanker, British Trent, through a narrow chanel yesterday said he had called Western Winner in vain as he saw the potential for disaster unfold on his radar screen.

Captain Roger Lauweriens told ITN that the Western Winner had held its course for about three miles before colliding with the British Trent which exploded claiming the lives of nine seamen.

But a senior official investigating the collision also said yesterday that the crew of the Panamanian-registered ship may have misinterpreted radar readings. A report into the tragedy on Thursday was yesterday sent to the local prosecutor at Bruges who will decide whether charges are to be answered in court.

Mike Graham, superintendent of operations support for BP Shipping, said yesterday that the British Trent was 'virtually stationary when the collision occurred'. The tanker was close to a marker buoy at the time of the collision, which took place in dense fog a couple of miles east of the shipping lanes through the Strait of Dover.

The British Trent appears to have been hit by the Western Winner, which was carrying mineral ores. Nine crew of the British Trent died in the fire and 27 were plucked to safety.

Yesterday's initial examination of the British Trent showed severe damage to the accommodation areas and the engine room, which was partly flooded. The ship's port side had borne the brunt of the collision.

A spokesman for the Belgian maritime police, conducting an investigation into the accident, said that in these cases often no one was wholly to blame. However, he hinted that the crew of the cargo ship might have misinterpreted radar readings.

This appears to be supported by a statement from Gang Dae Pung, the Korean captain of the Western Winner. The London Evening Standard yesterday quoted him as saying: 'There was dense fog out there that night. Sure we were watching the radar. But it's difficult in those waters . . . so many buoys and other ships.

'There were all those little points so close together on the screen to watch. It's not easy.'

The preliminary investigation did not find that there was any fault with the rules governing the avoidance of collisions at sea. These state that ships proceeding in poor visibility and unclear about the manoeuvring of neighbouring vessels should slow down, and if necessary stop.

Another investigation is being carried out for the local prosecutor by an independent maritime expert.

BP estimated that nearly all the 24,000-tonne cargo of petrol carried by the British Trent was still on board. BP and Belgian environmental officials said that there is no risk to the environment.