Dark Days-We Thought of Bombing the Empress

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Byline: By SAM BURSON Western Mail

The Sea Empress ran aground 10 years ago tomorrow spilling thousands of tonnes of oil into the sea off Pembrokeshire. In the second of three features to mark the anniversary, Sam Burson reports on the events of that fateful day IT was always going to be one of those weeks for Milford Haven harbour master Mark Andrews after the Sea Empress ran aground on Thursday evening, February 15, 1996.

But even he did not imagine when he was called into work, that he would soon be seriously talking about bombing an oil tanker.

Although he knew a huge tanker had run aground, and that it had leaked some oil, it was not until several days later, after storms had blighted determined salvage attempts, that the enormity of the problem began to emerge.

Mark is 52 and still in charge of the harbour, and memories of the events of 10 years ago, are still fresh in his mind.

He said, 'At one stage we were even looking at the possibility of bombing the thing, and setting light to it.

'We couldn't control it, and oil was pouring out so what else could we do?

'It was done with the Torrey Canyon in 1967, so it was not something we'd just invented in desperation.

'It was always being put to one side, but it was something we were wondering about if all else failed.

'We had to explore all the options. I'm very glad we didn't have to do it.'

The Torrey Canyon, which grounded off Cornwall nearly 40 years ago, underwent napalm attacks in what was considered the safest way to get rid of its fuel.

A repeat of the idea was mooted during the darkest time of the Sea Empress episode, when it was realised just how much oil was leaking.

Although the vessel had stayed stricken for several days, hopes were high it would be still be possible to pump away its vast amounts of oil, (just 2,500 tonnes had escaped at the time), and tow it to safety for repairs.

Mark recalled, 'I was at home at the time it happened and I'd just finished dinner.

'I got a phone call from Port Control and the duty officer advised me that there'd been an incident - a ship coming into port had grounded on entry. I knew it was a tanker, and that it was large. 'I thanked him for letting me know. 'It took me 20 minutes to get to Port Control, by which time, things were already in motion. 'It was quite clear by now that this was a major emergency, so we declared a port emergency, and shut the port. 'The initial thought was that we needed to re-float her. 'We managed it, and she floated off and sat in a pool in the harbour with anchors down.'However the bow was awash and too low in the water to allow either docking, or movement further out to sea. Even so, it was estimated little more than 2,500 tonnes of oil had leaked from the vessel. Mark said, 'Everything still seemed to be OK. 'The ship owners got in touch with salvors, and we talked to Marine Pollution Control unit. 'That all started the process of, 'What are we going to do to salvage the situation?' 'There was no panic.' However bad weather and worse fortune soon combined. Mark recalled, 'The idea was to transfer all the oil from the ship so we could lighten her and get her into port. 'We were then hit with very bad weather. 'Any maritime person will tell you that the best way to ride it out is with the bow - not the stern - facing the storm. 'We made the decision to turn the ship around, but during that time we had a problem because one of the anchors had become trapped on the sea bed.

'We decided to loose the anchors, and I think it was from that point that we had difficulties. 'The weather came in and we just lost control of the vessel. It was out of control and just careering around. 'That was when we had to evacuate the people on board. 'We only managed to get back on board, and get it under control, because we'd used 13 tugs. 'By that time she'd lost so much oil. …