Rescue teams save 12 after cutting through capsized ship

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New doubts were raised yesterday about the safety of shipping in the North Sea and English Channel after two shipwrecks in which 23 sailors are believed to have died.

New doubts were raised yesterday about the safety of shipping in the North Sea and English Channel after two shipwrecks in which 23 sailors are believed to have died.

Three Filipino sailors drowned and 15 other sailors were missing yesterday presumed dead when a freighter capsized in shallow water near the island of Bjoroey just off the Norwegian coast.

Twelve sailors were rescued from the Norwegian-owned MS Rocknes late on Monday, three after spending seven hours trapped inside the vessel's overturned hull. Rescue teams cut a hole in the bottom of the ship to free the sailors, who had succeeded in passing a series of increasingly desperate notes to emergency workers.

In reply to a reassuring note from rescuers, one of the trapped Filipino crewman replied on a piece of paper in large blue letters: "Ok. But pls make fast. My coy (colleague) dieing (sic)."

"As the hours passed the notes got more dramatic," said Leif Linde of the Bergen Fire Department. "In the end, we had to cut through the hull."

Dutch salvage experts yesterday pumped air into the hull of the Antiguan-registered MS Rocknes to keep it afloat while searches continued for missing sailors, possibly trapped inside the ship.

But Harald Andersen, the local sheriff, said that the missing sailors were unlikely to have survived in water temperatures just above freezing.

He said: "It would be a wonder if we found people alive in the ship under these conditions." Shortly afterwards the search was called off. The freighter, laden with rock and bound for Emden in Germany, capsized on Monday in a channel between Bjoroey and the Norwegian coast. There were 30 people, including a Norwegian pilot, aboard.

The owners, Jebsen Management, called for an inquiry into why the three-year old ship should have tipped over in calm, shallow water only 200 metres from the shore. Crewmen told the Bergens Tidende newspaper that the ship appeared to have struck the bottom or a shoal before capsizing.

A French trawler, which sank off the Cornish coast on Thursday, was said yesterday to have been rammed by an unknown freighter that failed to stop or send an SOS signal. Five Breton trawlermen aboard the Cap Burgaled Breiz, from Loctudy, near Quimper, are believed to have drowned.

André Le Berre, the chairman of the Breton fishing committee, said that the vessel that struck the trawler was manned by "thugs who don't deserve to be called sailors".

French authorities plan to start a criminal investigation for manslaughter and intend to ask all European ports to search for a ship - believed to be a giant container-carrier - showing signs of collision damage on its bows.

French officials said that examination of the submerged wreckage of the Breton trawler by robot submarines had shown that it was crushed by a much larger vessel - not sunk in a storm as originally reported. They said that it was possible that the crew of the freighter had not seen the collision but they must have heard the SOS call broadcast by the trawler before it sank.

The two shipwrecks follow a series of serious incidents in the North Sea and Channel in recent years. Just over a year ago another Norwegian cargo ship, the Tricolor, sank in heavy seas in the straits of Dover, carrying a €30m (£21m) cargo of luxury cars. The Tricolor collided with another cargo vessel in light mist. All the mostly Filipino crew were rescued but the wreck impeded one of the world's busiest shipping lanes for months.

Another ship ran into the remains of the Tricolor two days after the original collision.