Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Migrant Disasters - Shipwrecks, Lorries and cocklepickers

Over the last ten years or so there has been a noticeable increase in the deaths of migrants in mass casualty disasters caused by those at the head of the human trafficking treating people as if they were just expendable cargo. Thousands of people from places like China, Vietnam and Mexico have paid tens of thousands of pounds each to be smuggled into Britain and America in the belief that they will suddenly have an amazing life and be able to support their families back home.

What they do not realise is that the journey will be a huge risk to life and when they get to their destination they will be forced to work as either poorly paid labourers or in many cases be subject to slavery.

Great Britain alone has seen a number of these events. Only last year, on 24th November 2021, 30 migrants from all over the world came together on a French beach to attempt the crossing of the English Channel in a flimsy dinghy. They didn’t get far as the boat deflated out at sea and only two survivors were found by the time rescuers arrived on scene.

On 23rd October 2019 a lorry, which had just left a cross-channel ferry in Essex, pulled up for the driver to check on his human cargo. What he found was 39 dead bodies, all succumbed to hypoxia and overheating during the voyage.  The victims were all from Vietnam and the police investigation later convicted a number of people who were given long prison sentences.

This wasn’t the first time a lorry had been found like this. A Dutch lorry on 18th June 2000 was selected for examination at Dover after it had made the trip from Zeebrugge. Customs officers found 60 people in the back of the lorry, but only two of those were alive. It was later determined that they had died from asphyxiation after being trapped in the container for over 18 hours in extreme heat. The gang involved in the disaster and the driver were all given long sentences. 

For the Chinese illegal immigrants who found themselves in Morecambe Bay on 5th February 2004 they were the lucky ones, although they didn’t feel like it. After surviving the journey they were now nothing more than cheap labour for criminals who took advantage of them and their job now was to scour the beaches here picking cockles at low tide. But things turned to disaster when in the evening they found that the tide had cut them off and they were in danger of drowning. With broken English one call alerted the emergency services but 23 people were killed.

The 2006 film Ghosts was based on this disaster and is a powerful reminder that these people were not treated fairly, not paid a decent wage and were exploited and threatened by bullies, gangsters and killers. 

But this is just Great Britain, across the world there have been many incidents that have led to mass deaths of migrants: 

  • 27 June 2022 – 53 migrants found dead in the back of a truck in Texas after crossing border from Mexico. 16 others survived. The driver was arrested and the case is ongoing.
  • 24 March 2020 – A shipping container on a lorry in Mozambique contained 78 migrants, 64 of them were dead. Deaths were caused by asphyxiation.
  • 27 August 2015 – Truck is found abandoned on an Austrian motorway and investigation found the bodies of 71 illegal immigrants who were from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Due to the high level of decomposition several were not able to be identified.  Several people involved in the deaths were later convicted and jailed.
  • 9 April 2008 – 54 suffocate to death in a seafood container in Thailand after the driver fled. The container had a total of 121 people inside so this could have been so much worse if it had carried on the journey.

It is not just trucks that hold a large death toll though, for the journey starting at the home countries and ending at their destination is always mostly by truck, it is the part in between that holds the most risk – a crossing of the seas. The boats used in these crossings are sometimes flimsy dinghys, old fishing boats or whatever the smugglers can get hold of. Poor quality lifejackets are provided with the clueless migrants being told that it will be a short and simple journey.

What they face is hundreds of miles of terrifying seas, bad weather and the threat of capsize. But what they do not know is just how many of these boats never make it. In the last decade there have been hundreds of boats sink on the journey across from Africa to Europe across the Mediterranean. In April 2015 one unnamed fishing boat approached a cargo vessel and tried to cause a collision in the hope that the 700 people on board would be rescued and taken to Italy. But the boat capsized and sank with just 28 survivors. The wreck was later raised and a total of 675 people were confirmed to have died.

This was the worst of them, there have been so many more, thousands of innocent people, including new born babies, lost to the sea, their lack of knowledge about what is actually going on meaning that they unwillingly risk their lives in these ventures, not knowing that at the other end there is slave labour or arrest and deportation. Although there are rescue teams on standby, charities to help the survivors and police doing their hardest to investigate the criminals, it is a huge operation with a lot of money involved, and while ever these gangs are allowed to continue their evil trade these migrant disasters will keep happening all across the world.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Fire on the Sally Star

It was the early hours of 25th August 1994 and the roll-on-roll-off car ferry Sally Star was making her way from Dunkirk to Ramsgate with 104 crew and 17 passengers on board on a routine Channel crossing that normally took just a matter of hours. The ferry was build in Helsinki, Finland, in 1981 and had undergone a number of owner and name changes before being taken over by Sally Line in 1988. At 450 feet long and 74 feet wide, she could carry over 1700 passengers and 105 crew along with a car deck full of vehicles – over 400! As with all RORO ferries, vehicles could access both bow and stern doors making this type of ferry easily accessible for a quick turnaround.

Not long after the ship sailed, a fire detection panel on the bridge indicated a fire in the main engine room. When engineers went to investigate, black smoke was seen pouring out of the spaces. The engine was shut down, but then different systems on board started to fail such as the navigation lighting and steering gear. At 0422 Hours the general alarm was sounded and a few minutes later Dover Coastguard was called, all this while onboard fire teams prepared to attempt to fight the fire with breathing apparatus. Within minutes the few passengers had assembled and the emergency services were on their way to the stricken ferry.

As the fire teams were beaten back, the ships halon system was discharged into the compartment, the decks now starting to heat up significantly. In less than an hour after the first call, Ramsgate lifeboat and the tug Anglian River had arrived on scene. Now an incredible scene was played out as the lifeboat took on 102 people via the tug, crowded onto the upper decks to escape the burning ship, the lifeboat slowly making its way back to dry land while helicopters landed fire crews to help with the fire fight.

With only 19 crew left on board, 20 fire fighters now assisted with the battle as the ship, now at anchor in the middle of the Channel. One crewman was injured and was evacuated off the ship while boundary cooling was taking place on the decks, the tug spraying the side of the ship to ensure the fire didn’t spread further. As the morning progressed, more fire teams and tugs arrived on scene. By 1112 Hours that morning, Dover Coastguard reported the fire as being extinguished.

This could well have turned into a major sea disaster if it wasn’t for the rescue operation running like clockwork and the modern survival equipment on board the ship preventing the fire spreading. The image of a crowded lifeboat entering port with the survivors was one that made the papers the following day as everybody cheered for those who took part in what was surely a miracle in the Channel. The dangers of the RORO ferry and the open car decks were not just concerning through its ability to spread a fire though, for just a month later Europe was hit by its worst ever ferry disaster when the Estonia sank in the Baltic, once again highlighting the problems these ships face when disaster strikes.

An investigation reported that the cause of the fire was leaking fuel vapour igniting on the hot surfaces. Within less than two months the Sally Star was back at sea fully repaired. Other than a small collision in 1997 and a slight grounding in 2008, she has since had a good record of successful voyages. She did, however, suffer a fire in the Channel in 1988 where she had to be towed to Ramsgate.  In 1997 she was sold again to a Scandinavian company, changed hands (and names) on numerous occasions and the ship still operates today as the Wasa Express ploughing the waves of the Mediterranean.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Jonahs of the Titanic?

When the Titanic sank on 15th April 1912 it sent shockwaves around the world, so many people involved in this shipwreck, so many names thrown around at the later inquiries. As the stories hit the newspaper stands and later became well known within the countless books, films, documentaries and even sheet music, many didn’t realise that some of these names were synonymous with shipwreck. For some of the survivors, Titanic wasn’t the first time they had been lost at sea, for others it wouldn’t be the last. Here are some people on board the most famous shipwreck in the world and their links to other sea disasters. Some of the survivors found themselves on the same ships as their former Titanic crewmates.

Charles Lightoller (4 sinkings) – Born in 1874, Lightoller suffered his first shipwreck in 1889 when a storm forced the sailing vessel Holt Hill to run aground. The crew were later rescued from an uninhabited island. After surviving Titanic, he went on to serve as First Officer on the liner Oceanic when she grounded and sank in 1914. In command of the destroyer HMS Falcon, she was accidentally sunk in a collision off Bridlington during a night time convoy manoeuvre where he fought overnight to save half of his ship that was still afloat. After being rescued he later took command of HMS Garry where he rammed and sunk the German submarine UB-110 off the Yorkshire coast. During the Second World War he took his yacht Sundowner to the Dunkirk evacuation and rescued 130 people from the beaches. He died in 1952 of heart disease.

Arthur John Priest (4 sinkings, 1 collision) – Possibly the largest amount of sea disasters claimed by one single person on board Titanic, Priest was a fireman for the great liners, surviving first the collision between the Olympic and HMS Hawke off the Isle of Wight in 1911, survived a gun battle between the German vessel Greif and his ship Alcantara where he was once again sunk, mined on the Titanic’s sister ship Britannic off the Greek island of Kea in November 1916 while working as a hospital ship, then a torpedo despatched his final ship the Donegal in the English Channel. After four sinkings and one collision, incredibly Priest would not die until 1937 when “the unsinkable stoker” succumbed to pneumonia in his bed in Southampton.

Violet Jessop (2 sinkings, 1 collision) – A stewardess on board Titanic, Violet had already been on board Olympic during the Hawke collision, was rescued from the lifeboat after Titanic went down and then found herself on the third sister Britannic when she was mined. She later wrote a biography about her life and had been referred to as “Miss Unsinkable.” She died of heart failure in 1971 at the age of 83.

Archie Jewell (3 sinkings) – After surviving Titanic, lookout Archie Jewell survived the Britannic sinking but was later lost in the sinking of Donegal.

George Beauchamp (2 sinkings) – Following his survival from Titanic, stoker George went on to serve on board the Cunard liner Lusitania when she was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland on 7th May 1915 killing 1197 people. He survived once again and said later that he would “stick to smaller” vessels. He died in 1942 at the age of 72.

Captain Edward Smith (1 sinking, 1 collision) – Commanding officer of Titanic was also captain of the Olympic during the Hawke collision. A subsequent investigation blamed Olympic for the incident.

Frank “Lucky” Tower – This has since been proved to be an urban legend, a man who was said to have survived Titanic, Lusitania and the 1914 sinking of the liner Empress of Ireland in a collision in the St Lawrence Seaway. No Frank Tower appears on any list on either ship despite claims that it was a true story.

Throughout history there have been several incidents that have involved the same people. In 1991 a group of entertainers took charge of the rescue of their crewmates and fellow passengers on the liner Oceanos when she sank off the coast of South Africa. Several of those same people were on board the Italian liner Achille Lauro in 1994 when she was consumed by fire and sank off Somalia

HMHS Britannic, a ship that many Titanic survivors would later serve on when she sank in 1916

Friday, May 13, 2022

Britain’s Lost Tragedies Uncovered (and remembered)

Since the age of 11 I have had a fascination with disasters, particularly the lost ships of the world but this soon extended to air disasters and then it spiralled into an archive of information that I have now. As many people know I have written over a dozen books on disasters, starting with the Great Gale of 1871 in my home town of Bridlington which saw 28 ships sink in one horrendous day, over 50 lives were lost and the two town lifeboats put out of action.

But as time went on there were many disasters that I would come across, many of them being so forgotten that there is no memorial, no books, no TV drama and in some cases it would only be an accidental acquiring of a newspaper report from over a century ago that would lead me to discover more. But despite many of these forgotten events, it came to my attention that there were some that had a memorial to their victims already placed. As with any tragic death, it is the relatives and friends of the deceased that are affected the most, not to mention if there are any survivors who have to suffer the PTSD for years to come. But as the years go by the stories get lost, so this is where I come in.

The History Press wanted a book of these largely unknown incidents and so the hard part for me was which ones to put into print. It was then a three year whirlwind of visiting places around the UK to try and find as much information as possible to add to their stories. The first one (I did the chapters in date order) was the Southampton fire of 1837. I had known about a tragic fire in the area since 1997 when I first visited the city but never looked into it any further. It turned out that just down the road from the blitz-damaged ruins of Holyrood Church was a warehouse that, on the night of 7th November 1837, had a small fire that soon grew to be a raging inferno. The locals nearby tried to help extinguish the blaze but there was no hope. 22 people were killed, their names now forever engraved on either side of the entrance to the church.

Over 300 miles north is the seaside town of Whitby, a place on the North Yorkshire coast that I have visited on many occasions, not least to see the lifeboat house and the memorials to the sinking of the hospital ship Rohilla during the First World War. On the top of the cliffs stands Whitby Abbey, overshadowing a small church where there is a memorial to the lifeboat crew from 1861. Like Bridlington, Whitby suffered the same stormy problem exactly ten years and one day before the Great Gale of 1871. Only this time it was the lifeboat crew who died after heroically rescuing the crews of several ships despite overwhelming cold, storms and exhaustion. Of the 13 crew members, there was one survivor and that was Henry Freeman. He later went on to be coxswain of the RNLI lifeboat and his grave today reflects his heroic career as does the lifeboat museum in the town. 

The next memorial I wanted to write was that of the Hull Paragon railway station disaster. It was 14th February 1927 that a mistake at a signal box caused two trains to be on the same track on a collision course. A train out of Hull and a train entering the station from the small town of Withernsea smashed into each other and caused carnage. Eight people were pronounced dead on the scene, four more would die later, most of them from Withernsea. The survivors were left with horrific injuries and walls had to be broken down in order to extract the victims from the railway lines and get them to hospital. Today the area is still in use, although the Withernsea line is long gone. A memorial plaque with an information board sits behind the Hull Royal hospital overlooking where so much sadness reigned 95 years ago. Due to the fact that I have since had further information on this disaster, and that I had already written about the other two disasters on this same line (Lockington in 1986 and Burton Agnes 1947), it is my intention to write a book solely on this crash.

Over to the Isle of Wight was another adventure to the museums and monuments of Britain, so many interested places including castles. But up on a hill on a quiet country road near the village of Brook is a scarred piece of chalk cliff, the site of the crash of a passenger flying boat. On 15th November 1957 Aquila Airways flying boat City of Sydney took off from Calshot with 58 people on board, but immediately had an engine failure that caused it to be turned back. The aircraft slammed to the ground and what is actually incredible is that 13 people survived. This became England’s worst air disaster at the time and Britain’s second worst. At the foot of the cliff a memorial stone marks the spot where you can stand and look up at where tragedy struck, another plaque is in the nearby Brook church.

Now what is incredible about this next disaster is not that it occurred in a place just as quiet and peaceful, but that two similar accidents happened here almost fifty years to the day between each other. On 10 June 1925 a day out on board an open top coach turned to disaster when one of three in a line, carrying 23 passengers, suffered brake failure on a hill near Grassington, North Yorkshire. The coach smashed through the wall of Dibbles Bridge and landed upside down killing 7 people. Fast forward five decades, on 27 May 1975 and the exact same thing happened with a party of pensioners, the coach landing in the exact same place, only this time it became (and still is to date) Britain’s single worst road disaster with 33 killed. Most people came from the town of Thornaby and the town has put a lot of effort into making sure their residents are remembered by placing several memorials around the town, but the fact that the two disasters are so similar is nothing short of eerie, especially when you compare the two images. 

London has seen its fair share of tragedy over the years. I have already written about the Moorgate tube crash before and future projects include the sinking of the Marchioness on the Thames. But two fires just months apart would provide many headlines when an illegal drinking club was firebombed by a disgruntled customer and killed 37 people in August 1980 (the killer was jailed for life) and then in January 1981 a party in a house at 439 New Cross Road had fire brigades race to the scene to be met with carnage. To this day nobody knows exactly how the fire started, many people believe it was arson yet with no concrete evidence this is merely speculative as all signs point to an accident. 13 people died in the blaze, a friend of the deceased later committing suicide. A plaque on the side of the house today remembers the 14 who died. To this day the New Cross Fire is steeped in controversy.

One chapter that did shock me as being forgotten was the explosion at a valve house for the water company in the village of Abbeystead in Lancashire in 1986. During a tour of the plant, several locals were being shown around to allow their minds to be put at rest over fears that the station was causing a flooding issue nearby. What nobody knew is that there had been a build-up of methane gas that had been released over time and when a demonstration was taking place of the water pumping, this gas was released and all it took was a cigarette. A resulting explosion ripped into the tunnels and lifted the ground above their heads. 16 people were killed. A small plaque remembers those who died but the name Abbeystead is barely remembered by anybody other than those familiar with this tragedy.

When I talk of forgotten disasters, I don’t ever think that people live at the site of a place like this and don’t know a thing about it. But when I visited the village of Dunkeswick 20 years after twelve people were killed in an air disaster it shocked me that people can be so ignorant of their local area. We are talking about people living in the next field! But on 24th May 1995 a dense fog rolled over the Leeds area and as Knight Air flight 816 took off from Leeds-Bradford Airport it soon became apparent that their artificial horizon was not working properly. The pilots could not tell which way was up, the Embraer Bandeirante plunged into a farmer’s field with no survivors. The nearest church at the tiny village of Weeton has a memorial in their grounds.

Each of these disasters made headlines at the time, for those involved in the rescue operations, the recovery of bodies or even surviving the injuries, they will never be far from their minds. But once the press have walked away and moved on to the next story, many of these tragedies will once again be left alone. Only the history books can now tell these stories. Nobody is alive that remembers the Whitby storm or can tell us what survivor Henry Freeman was like to talk to. I have written down as many as I can and my work will keep on going for many years to come. These disasters here have all been given memorials in one way or another. Many other stories in my book have nothing. The Hosier Lane family massacre of 1869 has nothing, the street itself devastated in a World War 2 air raid. The site of the Ronan Point tower block that collapsed in 1968 is not marked. An explosion in an underpass leading to Hull’s fishing docks has nothing but graffiti on its walls and the terrible memories of 19 people being burned, two of them fatally.

So today I continue my work and at this moment have already researched more about the Hull rail disaster, got funding for a memorial to a sinking ship during World War 2, got more books ready to be released and, of course, renewed my National Archives reader card ready for the next step. If anybody can help add further detail to my archive about any of these disasters, or indeed ones that I have never written about, then please get in touch via email - - and I will reply. 

Britain's Lost Tragedies Uncovered was published in 2021 by The History Press, priced £12.99 and available in paperback as well as e-book. 

Monday, May 2, 2022

The Lost Ships of the Falklands War 1982

When war broke out in the South Atlantic in 1982 few could imagine just how much would happen in just a few months. From the initial invasion by Argentina of the island of South Georgia followed by the Falkland Islands in April, the British government wasted no time in sending a task force to retake the islands. By the time the Argentinian military surrendered on 14 June 1982 the seabed was littered with vessels.

Fenix – Argentine landing craft said to be the first casualty of the war, but very little is known about her. She has been photographed wrecked on a beach by several sources.

ARA Santa Fe – 25 April 1982. This Argentine Balao class submarine was originally the USS Catfish, launched in 1944 and sold to Argentina in 1971 and renamed. On 25 April 1982 she was sighted by a British helicopter after sailing from South Georgia following a mission to resupply and land marines. Depth charges were launched and the now surfaced submarine was riddled with small arms fire which made her inoperable. Going alongside Grytviken pier, the sub partially sank there and was later scuttled in deep water three years later.

ARA General Belgrano – A cruiser originally launched by the US Navy as the USS Phoenix she was famously photographed at Pearl Harbour during the 1941 Japanese attack, incredibly unscathed as the fleet burned around her. Sold to Argentina she was renamed 17 de Octubre then eventually General Belgrano. On 2nd May 1982 she was part of a task group escorted by smaller ships and unbeknown to her followed by the British submarine HMS Conqueror. With every intention to turn towards the Falklands to take part in hostilities, Conqueror was given permission to sink her. Torpedoes sank her leaving 323 dead, hundreds of survivors floated for hours before the escort ships even realised the vessel had gone down. In 2003 a National Geographic expedition failed to find the wreck in a search involving survivors of both Belgrano and Conqueror.

HMS Sheffield – 4th May 1982. The Type 42 destroyer commissioned in 1975 was the first British casualty after an air attack ended with an Exocet missile slamming into her side and igniting fires within the ship. 20 of her crew died, 261 others survived. The ship was taken under tow by HMS Yarmouth but after six days the flooding within became too much and she sank, the first warship sunk in conflict since the Second World War.

Narwal – Argentine fishing vessel damaged in air attack by aircraft from HMS Hermes 9th May 1982. The bombs failed to explode but enough damage was caused to see the vessel founder the following day.

Isla del los Estados – Argentine military supply ship that had only been in service for 18 months when she sank on 11 May 1982 after a battle with HMS Alacrity’s 4.5 inch gun killing all but two of her 24 crew.

Rio Carcarana – An Argentine cargo ship, she was attacked on 16th May 1982 by British aircraft and was soon on fire. Fearing the detonation of her cargo of munitions the crew were ordered to abandon ship, although she only sank days later when HMS Antelope despatched the derelict burnt out hulk by two Sea Skua missiles.

HMS Ardent – 21 May 1982. Type 21 frigate, attacked by Argentine aircraft in Falkland Sound, two bombs struck the ship but failed to explode. Several more bombs from other aircraft slammed into various points around the vessel causing major fires. HMS Yarmouth took off the survivors but 22 others were dead. Ardent sank the following day in shallow water.

HMS Antelope – On 21 May 1982 the Type 21 frigate came under air attack and fought back with SeaCat missiles, disabling one aircraft but not before a bomb penetrated her hull killing one crewman. Incredibly the bomb did not explode. Another attack saw an aircraft crash after coming under fire from Antelope's 20mm guns. Attempts to diffuse the unexploded ordnance still on board saw the bomb detonate on the night of 23rd May killing one member of the team and injuring another. The ship was ripped apart and sank in two sections, thankfully most people survived.

HMS Coventry – 25 May 1982. Air attack on Coventry, another Type 42 destroyer, resulted in explosion and fire following bomb strike. Of the three bombs that hit the ship, one failed to explode. 20 killed, ship capsized with very little time and survivors rescued by nearby ships in nearby task group. Wreck has been located and surveyed by Royal Navy over the last few years.

Atlantic Conveyor
– 25 May 1982. Taken from civilian owners Cunard to be used as cargo transport, she was hit by two missiles the same day as HMS Coventry resulting in fires consuming vital stores which included helicopter parts. Vessel later sank with 12 killed. 

RFA Sir Galahad
– Together with RFA Sir Tristram, these two Landing Ship Logistics came under air attack on 8th June 1982 in what was one of the worst incidents for the British of the entire war. Direct hits on both ships saw the death of 48 crew and soldiers with many more suffering horrific burns, the most famous being Welsh Guardsman Simon Weston who has since become the image of the Falklands survivor due to his facial burns and public story. Sir Galahad was later sunk in deep water, Sir Tristram carried back to Britain on the back of a heavy lift ship.

Foxtrot 4 – On 8th June 1982, she was one of four LCU landing craft from HMS Fearless and was transporting army personnel and vehicles down St Choiseul Sound when it came under attack from Argentine aircraft. Taking direct hit from a bomb, she was taken in tow before sinking. Six people were killed, there were 11 survivors.

Hercules – Not officially on the list of ships sunk during the Falklands War, on 8th June 1982 this Liberian tanker was bombed by Argentine aircraft in the mistaken belief that it was a British supply vessel almost 500 miles away from the conflict. There were no injuries to the crew who were later rescued and the ship was scuttled after an unexploded bomb was found in the tank. A controversy around this sinking has never fully been settled.

Bahia Buen Suceso – Argentine landing craft which was captured by British forces on 15th June 1982 and sunk as target by Royal Navy on 21st October 1982.

Despite the ships above being sunk and out of action, there were many more on both sides that suffered damage, death and destruction in the course of their duties. These include HMS Glamorgan, HMS Plymouth, HMS Brilliant, RFA Sir Tristram, HMS Glasgow, ARA Guerrico, Alferez Sobral, Formosa, Piedra Buena, HMS Arrow, HMS Alacrity and many more. As with many wars that have come before and will so in the future, most people involved with the incidents here bear no ill feeling towards their former enemy. Pilots have met up with the crews of the ships they have bombed, crew of the Conqueror have shook hands with those who survived the General Belgrano and despite the long running Argentine claim to the islands, the people who live on the Falkland Islands cast their vote and today still remain under the flag of Great Britain.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Tragedy on board the Alfa America

© Joerg Seyler via
On Thursday 28th March 1996 a call came through to Humber Coastguard at Bridlington that an incident on board a huge oil tanker off the East Yorkshire coast required urgent assistance. Two people had entered a slop tank for routine checks and had become unresponsive, a call for Humberside Fire and Rescue was made at 2017 Hours and before long a number of rescue parties were making their way to the ship which was at anchor around three miles from Flamborough Head.

The ship was the crude oil supertanker Alfa America (IMO number 7716048), built in 1979 at the Mitsubishi yard in Nagasaki, Japan. Launched as the Nordic Faith, she was renamed Fina America upon her change of owners in 1983 before being sold again to Shinobu Shipping Co Ltd in 1994 where the name Alfa America was emblazoned on her bow. At over 51,000 gross tons, she had a deadweight of 90,000 tons and flew the flag of the Bahamas, carrying a crew from Croatia.

As the fire teams reached the ship by Sea King helicopter, the mine hunter HMS Hurworth also provided assistance as she neared the huge vessel. Providing a platform for teams to work from, the ships company also assisted with teams on Breathing Apparatus to back up the firefighting teams and rig fans for ventilation. As the fire teams made their way into the confined space of the waste tank, oil and waste coating every surface, it soon became apparent that there were both of the missing crew were dead and an RAF firefighter who had attempted a rescue and had become distressed now himself required urgent medical attention. A third crewman who had gone in after the first two was also flow to hospital.

The crew of the Alfa America were informed of the tragedy, but due to the complications of the compartment and the terrible conditions within the tank itself, the ship would have to continue its journey to Teesport (which it was already heading to after departing Hull) in order to get a team on board to recover the bodies. With a heavy heart, the anchor was weighed and the ship proceeded north to a very dismal port visit.

The two bodies were recovered and an investigation showed that it was an accidental overcoming of fumes that had caused the crewmen to lose consciousness in a confined space. The death toll could easily have been higher if it wasn’t for the fact at least one of the fire fighters from Humberside Fire and Rescue had experience working on tankers previously. The crewman and firefighter who were taken to hospital made a full recovery.

Alfa America faded from the news as quick as it had arrived, she was front page of the Yorkshire Post and a few other local papers, other than that very little was written. She was later sold yet again and renamed Alfa Ship (2002-6) and finally Sing Lee which was her final name before being towed to Bangladesh in April 2006 for scrapping. Ironically the deaths of two crewmen just a few miles from Yorkshire made less headlines than the controversy over her scrapping, as an article in the Bangladesh newspaper The Daily Star points out that Greenpeace had listed this ship as a hazard and therefore the Government would refuse to dismantle her due to the presence of toxic materials and environmental waste involved. She was eventually scrapped as planned.

Friday, March 4, 2022

Capsizing of a Hovercraft

One of the safest modes of transport on the sea is in fact the hovercraft, not technically a ship, or a boat but it is an aircraft which originally came under the regulations of the Civil Aviation Authority. Over the years these craft have shown that they can mix speed with success for both the civilian capacity (ferries) and military. But as with any mode of transport, accidents do happen and in this case a freak accident that had never happened before….and has never happened since.

It was a stormy day on Saturday 4th March 1972, the waves were choppy out in the Solent (the body of water separating the Isle of Wight from the mainland). The passenger carrying SRN6 type craft, numbered 012, was departing its terminal on the Isle of Wight for the fast crossing to Southsea, just outside the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour. On board were 27 people including the pilot and, just by chance, one of the passengers asked a random question – How do you get out of here in an emergency? He was shown how to break the window and that satisfied his curiosity.

The small craft skimmed the surface of the Solent and slowed down as it approached the Southsea terminal. What nobody knew at the time was the tidal conditions mixed with the bad weather were causing deep troughs just outside the harbour and the craft started dipping side to side. As one side dipped down, the opposite side caught the strong wind and acted like a huge sail, silently flipping the hovercraft over until the entire craft was upside down.

Those who saw this from shore were shocked at what had just occurred. Emergency services were called as the craft, now flat and exposing the underbelly, drifted towards the landing site. But in the cabin, the passenger who had asked that vital question started breaking the emergency glass and getting people out to safety.

It didn’t take long for fire crews to arrive, boarding the craft and hacking away at the craft with axes to try and gain entry from above. By now survivors were coming ashore, the pilot remaining on board the crafts upturned hull to assist the fire teams. Helicopters searched for survivors who may have drifted out to sea and ferry those to hospital that were now on dry land.

Tragically five people died, one of them a young girl who had been taken on the hovercraft as  treat by her uncle who had also perished. One body was never found. SRN6-012 was taken into Portsmouth Harbour by the RFA Swin (right) and raised where an investigation began. The final blame was placed on the bad weather and it was clear that the pilot had taken all precautions and could not have predicted such a freak event.

The craft itself was repaired and put back into service away from the UK, eventually being scrapped years later.

It was 1997 that I first heard of this in an article in the Daily Mail “On this Day” section. I was shocked that there was very little about this in the public domain. The only other hovercraft accidents involved the much larger SRN4 The Princess Margaret hitting Dover harbour wall in 1985 killing four people, but it took years of research to finally get enough information together to finally publish a small book which I named Capsized in the Solent.

I did try to get a memorial plaque put up for the five who died, but sadly there was not only very little interest but people were actively expressing that one wasn’t placed anywhere and that the whole tragic event should be swept under the carpet. There might not be a plaque, but my writing hopefully gives people a chance to know what happened that day and how one man’s random question probably saved most of the lives on board.

It is inevitable that people contact me long after my projects are complete, but a recent interview with the BBC has led to two survivors getting in touch with me recently and already I am getting new insight into a long-forgotten tragedy which should always be remembered.