The Shetland Oil Disaster: Luckless six-hour battle to avoid disaster: Force 10 gales hamper rescue operation as captain's last-ditch attempt to stop tanker hitting rocks fails

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The Independent Online
WHEN the Braer hit the rocks on the west side of the Garth's Ness peninsular on Shetland yesterday it was the end of a dramatic six-hour fight to avoid an environmental disaster.

Even then, luck, which had been conspicuously absent all morning, still deserted the emergency services.

The oil tanker grounded at the foot of a high cliff which meant that it could not be approached from the land.

Appalling weather, which is likely to continue, prevented emergency plans for containing the oil spillage from being put into operation. Last night only the fact that the winds were from the west was stopping the slick from spreading.

This is how the disaster unfolded off the Shetlands yesterday:

5.20am: Shetland coastguards were alerted by the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Aberdeen, which had received a call from the Braer. The crew said their engine had broken down 10 miles south of Sumburgh Head after seawater had got into fuel pipes.

5.31am: The coastguard helicopter, a Sikorski S61N, was ordered to take off to rescue non-essential crew members from the Braer.

5.35am: The tugs Tystie and Swaabie at Sullom Voe were alerted and got under way shortly afterwards.

However, they were 50 miles away from the stricken tanker as the crow flies and more than 70 miles by sea. Although they routinely handle large oil tankers, this is normally done in good weather conditions.

6.29am: A fishing boat, which was operating in the area, arrived alongside the tanker, but the weather was so bad that its crew could do nothing but watch helplessly as the Braer drifted towards land.

6.39am: The coastguard helicopter, piloted by Captain Tony Brewster, reached the Braer, which was now eight and a half miles south of Mainland, the main island in the Shetlands. The wind at this time was a southerly force 10 gale.

6.50am: After assessing the situation, the four-man helicopter crew prepared to winch people up from the ship.

The winching procedure had to be explained to the men on board, who included Greeks and Filipinos, and there were some language difficulties.

7.08am: The first man was taken off the Braer by the winchman, Friede Manson. It was a difficult and dangerous operation, each rescue trip taking approximately four minutes.

7.34am: The Star Sirius, a 1,500 ton oil rig support vessel, which was near Lerwick, the main town in the Shetlands, was alerted and asked to go to the aid of the Braer.

7.40am: The coastguard helicopter, which by this time had rescued six people, was joined by a Royal Air Force Sea King helicopter from RAF Lossiemouth on the Scottish mainland.

8.30am: The coastguard helicopter, with 16 rescued sailors on board, arrived back at Sumburgh Airport on the southern tip of Mainland. They were taken to a casualty centre but were found to have only minor injuries.

At the same time, the ship's captain radioed coastguards asking for the few remaining men on board to be taken off. The RAF Sea King evacuated them.

10.15am: The Star Sirius arrived having taken two and three-quarter hours to cover 30 miles in gale force conditions. The two tugs which had started from Sullom Voe had already turned back because they could make no headway against the storm.

They would have been unable to tow the Braer in such conditions.

By this stage the Braer was just three-quarters of a mile from the shore, but hopes were rising that powerful local currents would sweep her past Sumburgh Head and out into open sea. It was soon clear that such optimism was unfounded.

10.45am: The captain of the Braer asked that he be allowed back on board with three other crew members and two marine pilots in a last attempt to prevent the ship hitting the rocks.

They were winched down by the coastguard helicopter and tried to fire rockets with lines attached from the Braer to the Star Sirius. These missed their target.

11.15am: The Braer struck rocks at the foot of a high cliff on Garth's Ness.

A coastguard spokesman said yesterday that three men still on board were not winched to safety until two minutes after the ship went aground. It remained stationary for some time but oil began to leak out immediately.

When darkness fell in early afternoon, the slick had only spread about 200-300 yards, largely because the westerly winds kept it in the bay. But the wind is forecast to change to the south soon.

(Photograph and map omitted)