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The Scotsman: Eight feared dead in North Sea tragedy

FRANK URQUHART
 ([email protected])
Friday 13 April 2007

AT LEAST three people died and five were missing, feared drowned last night after an anchor-handling tug capsized suddenly in the North Sea off Shetland in relatively calm waters.

Ten of the 15 on board the Bourbon Dolphin at the time were rescued, but the Coastguard later confirmed that three of these had died. Another five crew members were unaccounted for as the search was scaled back for the night, more than six hours after the boat capsized in temperatures as low as 5C.

Divers had been flown to the scene amid fears the five may have been trapped in the vessel’s upturned hull, however hope for the missing crew members’ survival was fading fast as the night wore on.

It remained unclear why the state of the art vessel capsized. It was reported to be turning away from the Transocean Rather drilling rig, 75 miles north west Shetland, when the incident occurred 5:20 pm. Last night the chief executive of the Norwegian firm that owned the boat said such an accident “should have been impossible”.

Rig operators Transocean said of the 10 people were rescued, eight were recovered initially and another two were winched by helicopter from the water at about 7pm. The seven were later airlifted to the Gilbert Bain Hospital in Lerwick, Shetland.

Fears that a 15-year-old boy was among those on board were prompted after initial confusion about whether there were 14 or 15 people on the tug when it overturned. Reports from Norway, where the boat was based, suggested one of the crew may have taken his teenage son on the voyage with him.

Last night a spokesman for Transocean said all 99 crew members on board the Transocean Rather rig had been accounted for.

The Coastguard confirmed that all those on board the Transocean Rather were air lifted off late last night, because the Bourbon Dolphin – which had been handling one of the semisubmersible drilling rig’s anchors at the time the accident occurred – was still attached to the rig.

A spokeswoman for Shetland Coastguard said: “We can confirm that there have been three fatalities.

“The rig, the Transocean Rather, has been de-manned, with all non-essential staff being removed from the rig.

“This is due to the fact that the vessel is still floating nearby to the rig and while this poses a minimal risk, for health and safety reasons the decision was taken to de-man.”

The vessel, owned by Bourbon Offshore, is one of the newest supply vessels operating in the North Sea and was launched last year.

A spokesman for the owners confirmed that all members of the crew were Norwegian.

The company has launched an investigation into how the incident happened.

Speaking from the firm’s Norwegian headquarters outside Ålesund last night, the company’s chief executive, Trond Myklebust, said: “It is unbelievable. The boat is new and the weather is good, and we are looking for the reason this has happened. It should be impossible. What actually happened is still speculation at this stage.”

Mr Myklebust said: “There are five people still missing and they are local people from this area.

“The Bourbon company yesterday established a place where the families could meet at the office canteen during the evening. A priest and a doctor are at the place. It’s very sad to meet the families without being able to give them any good answers.”

Christa Roqueblave, a spokeswoman for Bourbon Offshore’s international headquarters in Marseilles, France, said:

“At present the cause of the accident is unknown. Weather conditions do not appear to be to blame as there were no storms when the ship went down and we do not know of any collision as yet. Our priority is to assure the security of those aboard, then to protect the environment and then to find the cause of the accident which will no doubt entail an examination of the ship.”

Two rescue helicopters were scrambled to the site of the stricken boat shortly after it capsized yesterday, together with a Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft from RAF Kinloss. They were joined by supply vessels and fishing boats in the area also attended the scene after a mayday call went out.

Navy divers were taken by helicopter from Faslane, via Lossiemouth, to the overturned vessel in the hope they could free any crew trapped inside the hull.

Mark Clark, at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency headquarters, said : “We cannot see the (five crew members), therefore we can only assume they are under the hull.

“We need to get them as quickly as possible. We are making every effort to get to them.”

Michael Mulford, a spokesman for the RAF said it would be a “severe test” for the divers.

“If there is any possibility that these people are in there and alive this will be their one chance of getting out.”

But by 11pm the rescue operation was scaled back for the night and the five had still not been found.

The 3,000-tonne vessel, built in Norway last year, is 75 metres long and capable of accommodating up to 35 people.

Concerns grow over oil safety

YESTERDAY’S capsizing is the latest in a series of incidents to cast doubt on the North Sea oil industry’s recent safety record.

Last week, a Health and Safety Executive investigation concluded there was a “general failure” to carry out certain audits on North Sea installations.

The report followed an inspection of more than 70 platforms, after which the agency issued nine enforcement notices and made 173 written requests for action. It also found that the rise in accidents mirrored a drop in experienced staff.

The report came two years after Shell was fined a record £900,000 for failings that led to a massive gas escape in 2003 on the giant Brent Bravo installation, in which two men died. Cutbacks in staffing levels over the past four years on North Sea rigs have also raised fears about safety, with unions claiming the loss of maintenance teams would be a “recipe for potential disaster”.

Last November, an oilrig was set adrift for more than 24 hours with 75 people aboard when it broke its moorings in severe weather. In March 2006, an inquiry was launched after Shell’s Tern installation caught fire 105 miles off the Shetland Islands, forcing the evacuation of 130 oil workers.

Accidents involving supply vessels are rare, but do occur. In July 2002, a man was killed during an engine-room fire aboard one of the crafts. Shaun McDonald, 25, was part of a team using a suction hose to remove oil that had been pumped back into the room, when the fire began. A fatal accident inquiry concluded that it had been “avoidable”.

In 1995, a crewman from a fishing boat was drowned after it collided with an oilrig supply vessel and sank.

Fishing vessels have also increasingly taken on the much sought-after but risky role of supply vessels.

Last year, four men drowned when the Kirkcaldy- registered Meridian sank 160 miles off Aberdeen while guarding a pipeline being constructed for the oil firm Talisman.

CRAIG BROWN

http://news.scotsman.com/index.cfm?id=565422007

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