`Marchioness' witnesses accuse police of pressure

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The Independent Online

Five witnesses at the inquest into the deaths caused by the sinking of the Marchioness in 1989 yesterday claimed they were put under pressure by police to say in statements that the collision with the dredger Bowbelle happened near Cannon Street railway bridge.

Nicholas, Peter and Digenis Stephanou, Stewart Taylor and Anthony Smith who were aboard the pleasure boat at the time of the disaster all insisted that the collision took place approaching Southwark bridge.

The families of the 51 victims of the Marchioness disaster who want a public inquiry held are particularly concerned by the controversy over where the collision took place.

The Maritime Accident Investigation Bureau report concluded the collision took place in open water between Southwark and Cannon Street railway bridge and that the Marchioness had been turning when it was hit.

But if it was just before or under Southwark Bridge then it could not have been changing course.

Nicholas Stephanou came up on deck just before the collision and saw the Bowbelle. "I'd never seen a boat go so fast on the Thames . . . we just couldn't get over the speed of the thing and it was just massive. It caught up with us very easily in no time at all," he told the court.

He said there was pandemonium as everyone rushed to one side and the boat tilted. It reversed and people threw objects in the water that would float in the hope of saving people. His brother, Digenis. said they were powerless to help. "People were drowning in front of me. They were screaming for help but we couldn't do anything."

After the accident, Nicholas Stephanou said, he went to the Savoy Hotel in the Strand as a witness. "Eighty people were at the Savoy with one police officer. They said they were going to take statements from us. We were in a queue. They were herding people like cattle, the survivors as well."

He gave his statement at home a week later to an officer from the Criminal Investigation Department. "I didn't like his attitude at all. He was telling me he knew what the facts were and what I was telling him was wrong," Mr Stephanou said.

"A lot of the things I was saying he was putting into a different kind of context. He was trying to tell me the boat wasn't sunk at Southwark Bridge but at Cannon Street."

Stewart Taylor, 27, said he was certain of where the collision had taken place because he had just passed the Daily Express building where he worked. But he said when he told police it had happened by Southwark, "[the police officer] said: `No, it didn't happen there'."

He said: "She more or less told me that . . . I was making a mockery of all the statements my friends had given. I thought I must have got it confused in my mind. She said we will start taking it again and I went with the view it happened between Southwark and Cannon Street."

He later retracted his statement.

The inquest continues today.