The Shetland Oil Disaster: 'Everyone was praying it would miss'

JOHN LEACH, an environmental health officer with Shetland Islands Council, and his colleagues watched helplessly as the Braer was dashed on to the rocks of Fitful Head, so named because of its awesome reputation for storms.

'It was obvious from 10 to 20 minutes before she hit the rocks that it was going to happen and there was nothing anyone could do,' he said. 'We had all the equipment, the restraining booms, the maps, but because of the prevailing weather conditions we could only watch. The gales were at force 7 to 10, gusting 12, that's impossible to describe. Everyone was praying it would miss the rocks; the coastguards, the pilots, everyone. For a while it looked like it would, but the wind changed direction slightly. The crew were put back on in a last- ditch attempt to secure a line, but there was nothing to be done.

'We all had a sense of hopelessness and anger. Anger at the disaster happening in combination with some of the worst weather in the winter. No oil was coming ashore when I left. We wouldn't have seen the oiled birds, otters and seals in the water because of the weather. We will soon. This is a puffin-breeding colony - thank God the breeding season is over. A number of people, keen bird-watchers, were close to tears.

'It's horrendous. There is just nothing we can do. It seems likely that she will break up. It is the worst thing that could have happened. We only have six and a half hours of daylight, maybe seven on a good clear day. The lack of light will hamper us. Our emergency plans are practised constantly and we have had offers of help and equipment from across the country. There has been a tremendous response, but until the weather changes we must wait.'

Callum Greig, who works on a platform in the Brent field, saw the tanker's final moments afloat from his hotel breakfast table in Sumbrugh. Unable to fly to his workplace because of the weather, he and two friends walked along the rain and wind-lashed coast to watch as the ship moved at a brisk walking pace towards the rocks, broadside on.

'Gradually she came into view through the rain and murk, first the funnel then the superstructure,' said Mr Greig from Aberdeen. 'She came slowly across the bay, then hit the coast. There was no big bang or anything, but it was incredible just watching it unfold.'