The Shetland Oil Disaster: Tug 'could have saved tanker if crew had stayed'

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The Independent Online
Experts yesterday supported the claim by the owner of the tug which tried to salvage the Braer that the tanker could have been saved if its crew had stayed on board until the tug arrived.

They said that the Star Sirius, a 1,500-ton oil rig anchor-handling vessel, was sufficiently powerful to have towed the tanker despite the appalling weather conditions at the time its engines failed off Shetland.

Barry Cork, the owner of the Star Sirius, claimed on Wednesday that if Alexandros Gelis, the captain, and some of his crew had remained on the Braer until the tug arrived, a line could have been attached in time to save it.

The last of the crew were winched off by a helicopter at 8.54am, 45 minutes before the Star Sirius arrived. Half an hour before the tanker was wrecked, six men, including her captain, reboarded but this late attempt to get a line to the tug failed.

Yesterday Mark Hoddinott, salvage manager of United Towing Ltd of Hull, said: 'The Star Sirius has 9,180 brake horsepower. She is certainly a powerful enough vessel to have pulled the tanker despite the weather.'

A former captain of a salvage vessel, who asked not to be named, said: 'The tug might not have been able to tow the Braer to a port but even in those winds she should have been able to keep the tanker off the rocks until more help arrived.'

If the Star Sirius's rescue attempt had been successful, Mr Cork's company, Star Offshore Services, which is not a salvage firm, could have expected to make about pounds 1m from the tanker's owners in New York. The amount is based on a standard Lloyd's open form contract which states 'no cure no pay' - in other words, the ship must be saved.

The decision to take the crew off the Braer has been defended or condemned according to people's priorities. Coastguards say that their first concern was to save lives, while islanders, concerned about their economy and environment, have criticised it.

After alerting the coastguard that he was in trouble at 5.05am, Captain Gelis delayed calling a tug for 15 minutes while he contacted the tanker's owners. In view of the bill that a salvage operation would incur, this is not thought to be unreasonable.

Once he had asked for a tug, the coastguard contacted two vessels in Sullom Voe but these were too far away and too small. They then telephoned the port office in Lerwick, which roused David Theobald, master of the Star Sirius, which was berthed there.

The tug is normally used for towing rigs and barges and so its equipment had to be altered. After an hour it left Lerwick at 7.10am and took two and a half hours to reach the Braer.

Captain David Polson, harbourmaster of Lerwick, said: 'They went flat out all the way, given the conditions. I am convinced that if they could have got a line on board they would have been able to get her moving.'

But by the time the tug arrived, Captain Gelis had abandoned ship. He was under intense pressure, drifting towards shore and with the coastguard having earlier told him it would take five hours to get a tug there.

A Shetland islander monitoring the radio exchanges heard one of the helicopter pilots telling the captain that he would have to make a decision on evacuation. Bob Driver, regional coastguard controller, said yesterday: 'The pilot would have said to him, 'It's make your mind up time'. There are incredible pressures on a master in this situation.'