Mariner’s Chapel in London’s oldest church displays the bell of the BP tanker British Trent, a memorial to the nine seafarers who died in a collision and fire off Belgium in 1993. Maritime Accident Casebook”s latest podcast explores why the lessons of the British Trent tragedy remain relevant fifteen years later and tests attitudes towards the criminalisation of seafarers.
Korean bulker carrier Western Winner powered into the port side of British Trent, which had a full cargo of 24,000 tones of gasoline, in thick fog on the morning of 3rd June, 1993. Western Winner holed British Trent’s hull, spilling gasoline which caught fire. Firefighting on British Trent was hampered by a fire main damaged by the impact. Nine seafarers died of smoke inhalation and heat, no casualties were suffered by Western Winner.
Western Winner’s owners attempted to hamper the subsequent investigation. Belgian officials at first laid criminal charges against Western Winner’s master, but later withdrew them.
Says Bob Couttie, writer and narrator of the episode: “One comes away with a sense that even after all this time, there hasn’t been closure for those who lost friends and loved ones on British Trent, nor, perhaps for the survivors. If not for the courage and discipline aboard, the toll could have been far higher. That alone is an important lesson: Training, drills and discipline save lives.”
An investigation by Britain’s Maritime Accident Investigation Branch on behalf of Bermuda identified the cause of the incident as failure to comply with the International Regulations for the Prevention of Collisions at Sea. Western Winner proceeded at an unsafe speed in restricted visibility, did not keep an adequate watch, and there appears to have been no passage plan. There was also a failure to keep an adequate continuous radar watch on the bridge of British Trent.
“This case is a classic example of why colregs are so important to understand and implement,” says Couttie, “It’s also a warning not to make assumptions about what another vessel is going to do.”
Also touched on is the issue of the criminalisation of seafarers. An inquest in the UK found that the death of the victims was an “unlawful killing” by those in command of the Western Winner.
Says Couttie: ”There has to be considerable doubt about the competency of the master of the Western Winner. Some comments about the case suggest that the master should have been tried on criminal charges and punished. The fact is that a certificate of competency doesn’t mean that someone can do the job. I would ask whether those who put him in command without ensuring that he was capable of safe navigation should bear responsibility, too.”
Like all MAC podcasts, The Case Of The Church Bell reveals the circumstance around a real event through an audio podcast and online materials available for free at the Maritime Accident Casebook website, http://maritimeaccident.org.
As with the preceding episodes, the podcast is backed by an illustrated online transcript that seafarers can read, discuss and share with their crewmates and other seafarers. Those with training and safety responsibilities can use the broadcasts and the transcripts freely.
Maritime Accident Casebook, MAC, is a unique, free, informal educational resource, supported by donations, for seafarers and maritime trainers which seeks to empower seafarers through knowledge to keep themselves alive and their ships safe. MAC encourages seafarers to discuss lessons learned from real-life events and apply them to their own vessels and working practices to create a safety-conscious community.