Senior Service prepares for evacuation

Up to 500 people a day may leave the island by boat for Antigua

Captain David Snelson thinks he and his 250 crewmen and women can cope with the volcano. But he is praying they don't get hit by a hurricane during their current operation.

The crew of the guided missile destroyer mobilised on board and onshore yesterday to organise the evacuation of up to 3,000 Montserratians who wish to leave the island, probably beginning either today or tomorrow.

Barring hurricanes or strong tropical storms - the hurricane season is about to reach its peak - they hope to oversee the evacuation of 400-500 people a day to neighbouring Antigua and complete the operation by the end of August.

The Liverpool lowered its "scrambling net" - a rope webbing for emergency boarding - and its "accommodation ladder", or vertical gangplank, yesterday for use in the event of a major volcanic eruption on the British Caribbean colony.

But the captain was confident the warship itself would not be needed to evacuate Montserratians. It will be used only if the volcano stages a major eruption and people flee to the shoreline in panic.

In that case, the ship's Lynx helicopter and two rigid inflatables would bring people on board but that would be a slow process and Capt. Nelson considers it an unlikely worst-case scenario. "The Lynx can carry only four or five people and the RIBs [dinghies] only a few more. We carry guns, not boats," he told reporters on the vessel's foc's'le, a mile off the lush shoreline of Little Bay in the north of the island.

Two or three small tour boats, carrying around 50 people each, will ferry evacuees to the nearby island of Antigua. A few may stay there but most are expected to wait in hotels, at Britain's expense, for up to three weeks while onward flights to Britain are arranged.

Royal Navy crewmen and women, in blue tropical uniforms and shorts, put up tents yesterday beside the jetty built in June to facilitate the evacuation. At least one Liverpool crew member with first-aid training will travel on each ferry.

Capt. Nelson said he was annoyed by some British media coverage which suggested the Liverpool was here as part of "Palmerstonian gunboat" diplomacy while doing nothing to help Montserratians.

"In an emergency, we'd just pack everybody on board. On Families' Day in Portsmouth we had 550 people on board," he said.

"The hurricane season does pose a complication," the captain added. "You wouldn't want people out on ferries during a hurricane. But the Caribbean has good early warning on storms so might stop the evacuation, or speed it up."

He said that in the event of a major volcanic eruption, "we'd weigh anchor and loiter a mile or two away".

Crewmen said the ship had had to install filters on air inlets after ash and grit from the volcano showered the warship recently. There was a strong smell of sulphur in the area, from the volcano, as the captain spoke.

In touching scenes onshore yesterday, scores of people registered for the voluntary evacuation. Kingsley Meade, a pentecostal preacher, said he hoped to get to Edmonton, north London, to live with his son. The registration form told him he could leave with only two suitcases.

Priscilla Allen, 63, was not worried about the suitcase quota. She could barely fill one with the things she was able to take when she fled her home in Streatham two years ago and moved from shelter to shelter since.

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