The master of the dredger Bowbelle, which collided with the Marchioness on the river Thames in 1989, killing 51 people, had a record of "dereliction of duty" for being drunk in charge of a ship, it was claimed at the inquest yesterday.
Captain Douglas Henderson was recalled to the witness box yesterday. Last week, he gave evidence for just 90 seconds after indicating that he had been advised not to answer questions which might incriminate him.
The west London coroner, Dr John Burton, again advised Mr Henderson yesterday that he was not obliged to answer any such questions.
In his police statement that was read to the court, Mr Henderson said that he had berthed the Bowbelle early on 19 August 1989. He had gone on to have five pints in several pubs before returning to the Bowbelle at 6pm. The dredger, on which no alcohol was allowed, finally began its journey at 1.12am.
Terry Munyard, representing the families of those killed in the accident, questioned Mr Henderson over his career on two boats under the captaincy of a Danish seaman.
"Were you dismissed by him after drinking on duty on more than one occasion?" he asked.
The coroner said: "That isn't relevant. He may have a number of convictions, he may have convictions for drink-driving, but it isn't relevant to this inquest."
Mr Munyard said: "I am suggesting he had a record in the past for dereliction of duty whilst in charge of a ship, due to drink."
Michael Caplan, counsel for Mr Henderson, said: "I not only make the point that this line of questioning is irrelevant, I find it objectionable."
Mr Henderson, who still works for South Coast Shipping, which owned the Bowbelle, remained silent for most of the 34 minutes of questioning repeatedly ruled irrelevant or incriminating.Dr Burton directed that questions should be confined to what happened on the night of the collision, 20 August.
Asked if he checked all the crew as they came on board, Mr Henderson said: "If you are sailing a ship in the early hours of the morning you have to make sure that the people who are doing a job for you are competent to do the job."
Mr Munyard said: "Had you known the cook was drunk that night, would you have been prepared to sail with him?"
"Absolutely not," Mr Henderson replied. Asked how he would know if anyone was unfit for duty through drink, Mr Henderson said: "How would anybody know ... short of taking breath tests and samples? It would have to be blatantly obvious."
The jury is expected to begin considering its verdict tomorrow.