Passengers and crew rescued from ferry fire: Blaze off Kent coast raises questions over RAF's rescue capability. Ian MacKinnon, Christian Wolmar and Christopher Bellamy report

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The Independent Online
MORE THAN 100 people were rescued from a fire on a cross- Channel ferry yesterday morning amid criticism that the closure of a local RAF base could have endangered lives.

An RAF helicopter carrying firefighters to tackle the blaze on the Sally Star, eight miles off the Kent coast, had to fly from Suffolk and took more than an hour to reach the scene.

Seventeen passengers and 85 crew - the ship was carrying mainly freight and had a second crew which was resting on board - were evacuated from the Bahamian-registered vessel, by two lifeboats launched from Margate and Ramsgate.

Nicky Essex, 29, a crew member, said: 'We have drills every week so we all know what to do. When we hear the bells we just go to the muster stations and that's it. It was very quick. We could see the lifeboats coming straight away. There was no panic at all.'

There were only two minor injuries. One crew member was taken to hospital suffering from a back injury and a firefighter was treated for the effects of smoke.

The delay by the helicopter in reaching the Sally Star led to renewed fears about the removal last month of search and rescue helicopters from RAF Manston, near Margate, to a base at Wattisham in Suffolk because of defence cuts.

At the time the cuts to the RAF search and rescue service were first mooted in 1992, unions and local people, including MPs, strongly criticised the removal of helicopters from RAF Manston. Roger Gale, Tory MP for Thanet North, later called for an inquiry because he feared the 51-minute response time from Wattisham to the Straits of Dover would be inadequate to meet an emergency in the crowded sea lanes in the Channel.

Previously, crews from RAF Manston could be over the sea within minutes, but the Government pressed ahead with the rationalisation of the rescue service which saved an estimated pounds 6.5m per year.

At the time the cuts were made, the RAF said it would reach most points up to 40 nautical miles off the coast within an hour but the RAF helicopter took 72 minutes to reach the scene of yesterday's incident.

The Dover coastguard, who coordinated the rescue operation, requested an RAF helicopter at 5.30am. A Sea King helicopter from RAF Wattisham, Suffolk, was airborne at 5.50am to pick up a fire-fighting crew at Manston, but a Belgian Sea King reached the ship at 6.27am, 15 minutes before the British helicopter.

The firemen on board later complained they waited 20 minutes to be picked up.

Yesterday, Tony McGregor, of the RMT union, which represents seafarers, said: 'Removing the unit from Manston to Wattisham has left a very large hole in the maritime safety net.'

The Ministry of Defence argues its study took account of the rescue helicopters available on the French, Belgian and Dutch coasts.

During the fire-fighting operation, the vessel became so hot that it had to be cooled from the outside by fire-fighting boats.

A spokesman for Kent fire brigade said the situation had been evaluated at 5.45am, when its officers had spoken to the ship's captain to establish the seriousness of the fire. He said: 'We determined that although it was fairly serious, it was not presenting any danger to the lives of the passengers or crew, or the vessel itself, but we needed all the equipment and fire appliances, which takes time.'

He refused to say whether firefighters would have got to the ship quicker if RAF Manston still had a search and rescue operation.

The Sally Star, which was built in 1981, suffered an engine-room fire in 1988, only 11 days after entering service for Sally Line. The blaze disabled the ship leaving 500 people stranded for several hours.

The company stressed, however, that modifications had been made after the first fire and there was no connection between the two incidents.

Linda McLeod, the company's marketing director, said there had been recent engine problems on the vessel.

Tugs were last night towing the ship to Dunkirk in France for repairs. Some Sally Line sailings will be cancelled until next Thursday when full service is resumed.

TWO other ships in British waters suffered fires yesterday. One broke out in a cargo main pump room aboard the 31,000-ton Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker, Fort Victoria, moored at Torpoint on the river Tamar, Cornwall. A Royal Navy spokesman said there were no casualties from the fire aboard the vessel, one of the newest of the RFA fleet. Lifeboats and a helicopter were sent to a Lithuanian-registered fish-factory ship, Seda, off Lerwick Harbour in the Shetland Islands after it reported an engine room fire. It was extinguished without need for an evacuation.

(Photograph omitted)