Families reject ruling that trawler was not sunk by Russians

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The Independent Online

The families of crewmen who died when a British trawler sank 30 years ago have rejected the conclusion of an official inquiry that it was not sunk by a Russian fleet which suspected it of espionage.

The families of crewmen who died when a British trawler sank 30 years ago have rejected the conclusion of an official inquiry that it was not sunk by a Russian fleet which suspected it of espionage.

The investigation into the loss of the Gaul in the Barents Sea in 1974, in which 36 men were killed, was chaired by the High Court judge Sir David Steel in the vessel's home port of Hull earlier this year.

His "firm conclusion" yesterday was that the trawler had been sunk by three-metre high waves which hit when the ship's offal chutes had been left open, causing the deck to be flooded.

Mr Justice Steel conceded that, at the time of the sinking, the engagement of fishing vessels in low-level intelligence-gathering was an "open secret" in Hull. Suspicions about the vessel's fate had not been helped by the government's decision not to search for the wreck, which had the "unhappy side-effect" of fuelling the belief the government had something to hide.

But to the anger of families of the lost men, he supported evidence to the inquiry given by the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, and an MI6 officer that the Gaul had not been involved in such activities. Afterwards the families rejected the inquiry's conclusion.

Kevin Jones, who lost his brother Billy in the sinking, insisted the Gaul should be raised. "It is the only way we are ever going to get to the truth," he said. "We didn't believe the explanation about the chutes."

An initial 1974 investigation found that the trawler fell foul of bad weather despite being only 18 months old and having issued no distress signal. The speed of the sinking was illustrated by an eyewitness, Tobjorn Kirksaether, who was on board a Swedish-registered vessel half a nautical mile away, who said, when asked if a search for the Gaul was launched by his crew: "There was no vessel to search for."

The judge dismissed six other explanations which had been put forward over the past 30 years, including suggestions that its nets had been snared by a Polaris submarine.