Survivors saw 'big ball of fire' coming towards them

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The Independent Online
SURVIVORS from the stricken BP tanker British Trent described yesterday how they escaped from the burning ship by jumping into the surrounding sea ablaze with burning petrol.

The crew and officers of the Trent attempted to fight the fire that broke out on board and only abandoned ship after it became obvious it was uncontrollable.

Cadet Jeff Tulley, 22, from Letchworth, Hertfordshire, was one of several officers - and two wives - who jumped overboard. 'There was burning debris everywhere on the water. It was the fastest 100m I have ever swum in my life. All the time the thought was going through my mind that the whole thing could go up and we would all be blown to smithereens,' he said.

Alistair Ridgley, from Durham, said he was woken by the collision. He said the smoke was overwhelming and he was forced to jump into the sea: 'There was nothing else to do. We just had to swim out of the smoke as fast as we could. I was picked up by the Belgian pilot boat. I don't know why the accident happened but there was reduced visibility.'

Ian Rippon, 27, from Gosport, Hampshire, was in his cabin with his wife Allison when he felt the ship shudder. 'I opened the curtains and saw a big ball of fire coming back towards the accommodation,' he said.

'There was no time for anything. We heard the alarm - seven short and one long blast - and somehow all got to the lifeboats, but the smoke and fire were too bad, we couldn't see a thing. We had to jump and could hear people splashing in the water.'

Joanne Waddy, a 19-year-old sea cadet from Hull, made for one lifeboat only to find it on fire and instead followed the screams round to the other side of the boat.

One crewman said yesterday the failure to abandon the ship immediately led to loss of life. Ross Newing, 33, the fourth engineer from West Wales, said before jumping overboard he and other crew members and officers spent 5 to 10 minutes trying to put the fire out. 'We should have abandoned ship immediately. As far as the lives of those on board the British tanker are concerned, there was no necessity for any loss of life.'

Mr Newing, in hospital in Ostend, said he was woken by the shuddering impact of the collision. On board, the smoke was so thick no one could see to operate the second lifeboat or the sea below and jumping was the only option. 'I had a lucky escape. I was thinking 'will I would survive or be burnt alive or drown'. I got into a lifeboat on the side of the ship that was not burning. But the ship swung round in the wind, covering us in smoke. We all jumped into the sea. It was full of petrol. It was horrible. You could see fire all around. I was expecting it to go bang at any minute.'

Ray Manton, a second engineer, from Cork, described staggering, blinded by smoke: 'I just jumped into the blazing sea, a lot of people jumped at the same time. I think I was in the sea for about 10 minutes. I didn't think I was going to make it although I wasn't hurt apart from some minor face burns.'

Another sailor, Amadu Manseray, said he and others had to swim underwater to avoid the flames on the surface. All but one of the crew had time to put their life jackets on.

The family of one of the two missing crewmen, Matthew Clements, spoke of their devastation at the news. His sister Geraldine said at the family home in Bournemouth, Dorset: 'We just can't believe this is all happening, we all loved him so much. My mother is devastated, Matthew was only 23. The whole family just want to be together at this terrible time.'

Dr Les Atkinson, chairman of BP shipping, said one of the company's main concerns was to 'offer help and support to the families'. He said they would receive appropriate counselling and financial help. Some might be flown out to Belgium.