Sunk cargo ship's crew cleared of negligence

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The Independent Online

The captain and crew of the MV Derbyshire, which sank 20 years ago, were cleared of negligence yesterday by a High Court judge who cast doubt on the safety of the world's fleet of 476 bulk carriers.

The captain and crew of the MV Derbyshire, which sank 20 years ago, were cleared of negligence yesterday by a High Court judge who cast doubt on the safety of the world's fleet of 476 bulk carriers.

The families of the 42 sailors and two wives who died on 9 September 1980 in one of Britain's worst shipping disasters said they were relieved that the finger of suspicion no longer pointed at their loved ones. For two decades they have been demanding an explanation of how the 91,000-ton vessel, three times the size of Wembley Stadium, sank.

Paul Lambert, the chairman of the Derbyshire Family Association, said he was happy that the families had at last "satisfied the judge" that the crew were not at fault.

"I don't think there are any winners because there are still 44 people dead." said Mr Lambert, who lost his brother, Peter, 19, when the Derbyshire was caught in typhoon Orchid 350 miles off the coast of Japan.

Mr Justice Colman rejected the report of a 1987 inquiry that suggested that the main reason seawater had breached the bosun's store was the failure of the crew to secure the hatch. The covers had bent and buckled when the vessel encountered the 80ft waves, he said. This allowed seawater to pour into the space above the cargo causing the vessel to plunge deeper, increasing the pressure on other hatch covers, which burst and directly led to the ship sinking to the bottom 4,200 metres down.

The judge's 214-page report relied on 135,000 photographs and 200 hours of video footage of the wreck from a £2.7m Department of Transport expedition mounted in 1996 and 1997. It showed that the Derbyshire had split apart at bulkhead 65.

Mr Justice Colman concluded that minimum strength requirements laid down by international convention for ships similar to the Derbyshire are "seriously deficient". He called on the Government to press "strongly and urgently" for new standards for hatch cover strength.

The judge said any amendment should be applicable not only to new ships but all existing bulk carriers because present hatch cover design "poses an unacceptable risk to the safety of those vessels and their crews".

The Derbyshire, which was 60 metres longer than the height of the Canary Wharf tower, was only four years old when it sank, without time for even a distress call, on its voyage from Quebec in Canda to Kawasaki, Japan. Apart from an empty life boat found long afterwards and some surface oil there was no other trace of the vessel for years.

Research carried out by the Derbyshire Families Association showed that bulk barriers of the same type were being lost at the rate of one a month, Mr Lambert said.

The families' barrister, Alan Moran QC, said: "There are ships still sailing the oceans with hatch covers designed in accordance with safety standards of 1966. One consequence of the judge's findings is that they are at risk."

The judge said that the Derbyshire had been manned by a "competent and very experienced" master and crew. The allegation that the crew had failed to secure the hatches "clearly involved the imputation of serious negligence," he said. It was deeply upsetting to the families of those on board.

The captain did not change course to avoid the storm because available weather forecasts showed sea conditions that would let him keep ahead of the typhoon, the judge said.

Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat transport spokesman, said: "This verdict is one of the most important judgments on maritime safety in recent years. There are important lessons about safe shipbuilding as well as belatedly restoring the reputation of the crew who died."

If urgent action is now taken on the judge's recommendations "the crew of the Derbyshire will not have died in vain", he said.

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