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Paul
Posted on Saturday, December 09, 2000 - 12:25 pm:   

Keith Harper, transport editor
Guardian

Thursday November 9, 2000


Ministers are to demand tougher international regulations on the safety of hatch covers on bulk carriers, after the captain and crew of the Derbyshire, which sank 20 years ago in a typhoon, were cleared yesterday of negligence.

An inquiry by a high court judge into the shipwreck, which claimed the lives of the 42 crew and the wives of two of them, rejected the findings of an earlier investigation which blamed the sinking off the Japanese coast on a failure to secure a hatch cover properly.

Instead Mr Justice Colman blamed the disaster on inadequate hatch covers, which bent and buckled when the vessel encountered 80ft waves in a Pacific ocean typhoon in September 1980.

Sea water poured into the space above the cargo, causing the vessel to plunge deeper, increasing the pressure on other hatch covers, which burst, and leading to the huge ship's sink ing two-and-a-half miles to the bottom.

The deputy prime minister, John Prescott, said he fully endorsed the view that the crew were in no way to blame for the loss "and his specific rejection of the suggestion that the bosun's stores hatch was left unsecured by the crew".

He said the government would press "strongly and urgently" for an international convention to be amended on minimum hatch cover strength - the amendment to be applied not only to new bulk carriers but also to existing ones. He also promised to report to parliament on how the matter was progressing.

He hoped the judge's report would finally provide the answers to the many questions surrounding the sinking.

Twenty scientific and technical experts, six master mariners, and five other witnesses gave evidence to the inquiry over 54 days.

Mr Justice Colman said yesterday that the Derbyshire, 280 metres long and 44 metres wide, would almost certainly not have been lost had it not encountered "extremely severe seas" in typhoon Orchid.

There was nothing to suggest that when Swan Hunter built the 169,000 tonne vessel the hatch cover requirements were deficient or unsafe, he said. This argument has been challenged by the ship officers' union, Numast, which says that several other tankers built at the time had defects.

A report on Channel 4 News tonight will claim that the inquiry did not fully investigate the Derbyshire's design and construction. Donald Thomas, a welder on the ship while it was being built, says the main keel girders were put on by "shoddy welders". The men were on piecework and "putting bits of metal in"; this made the girders "very, very weak".

The judge pointed out that an investigation was in progress into hatch strengths. He recommended regulations covering their use to be amended as soon as the results of the present survey were known. Some 476 bulk carriers are on the seas, of which 68 are of similar length to the Derbyshire.

The hatch strengths on the vessel had complied with international rules which the British government had tried to change, but it dropped its objections when it failed to get the backing of other countries. The judge exonerated the government from blame.

The Derbyshire families welcomed the report. Their solicitor, Stephen Cantor, said they were pleased that there had been "a complete exoneration and vindication of the crew".

Paul Lambert, chairman of the Derbyshire Family Association, said:"I don't think there are any winners because there are still 44 people dead. But the report has come out and said that the assessors were wrong in blaming the crew. It means a lot. That's 20 years of campaigning."

Margaret Noblett, whose husband was a victim, said: "I hope this inquiry will save lives. Every month a bulk carrier disappears. There is obviously something wrong with the way they are built."

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