Just one day after being tasked to lead a re-opening of the investigation into the January 2008 sinking of the general cargo ship Vanessa Captain Hristo Papukchiev resigned as chairman of the Commission of Investigation. It was a frustrating end to a mission to enhance safety for seafarers on Bulgarian ships and in Bulgarian waters.
Papukchiev’s story raises issues regarding the country’s commitment to maritime safety, safety investigation, and search and rescue. The issues are not unique to Bulgaria,they are common in those countries where shipping interests wield tremendous political power, power enough to make or break presidents. What makes his story unique is that such tales are usually kept behind well-closed doors but Papukchiev has gone public.
It is probably fair to say that Papukchiev’s frustration, and anger is not aimed at the Bulgarian authorities alone but also at the failure of the international maritime community to give him the support he desperately needed to make change. it was, in particular, a test of the IMO’s commitment to transparency, a test which it failed.
For the first time in Bulgaria’s history, on Papukchiev’s watch, Bulgaria filed an accident report with the IMO, in this case the tragedy of the M/V Tolstoy. He expected a response, he expected action, there was none.
The Tolstoy investigation was the first one completed with Papukchiev as the lead investigator. It identified serious regulatory failings, inadequate vessel monitoring and a serious shortfall in Bulgaria’s SAR capability and in VTS operations. It should have led to a serious enquiry aimed at improving the situation, it did not.
In an interview with the Bulgarian language magazine Klass, he describes his experience in the Tolstoy investigation: “The facts are the investigation into the Tolstoy’s shipwreck was closed and a report was published. During this procedure, different people both working at the Ministry of Transport and members of the Commission were trying to exert pressure on our team. The report was repeatedly being returned on various grounds. However, I think that despite this pressure the report was prepared according to the regulations of the International Maritime Organization and the European Maritime Safety Agency. Recommendations in the final version were addressed to both international organizations and Bulgarian institutions.
“Tolstoy was not built for sailing in the weather conditions she was at the time of the shipwreck. The report concluded on inadequate behaviour by several Bulgarian institutions. They should have not only followed the ship’s itinerary in the Bulgarian territorial waters to trace and rescue her, but should have prevented the disaster, especially when they had identified serious problems.”
The were good reasons to raise a red flag and keep watch on Tolstoy. Says Papukchiev: “The fact is there had been no signals of distress from m/v ”Tolstoy”. This should come as no surprise since the ship’s radio-technical equipment had been out of order. In accordance with the existing regulations, m/v Tolstoy should have been watched closely as a potentially risky ship. She has been known for a year to be out of North Korean Maritime Administration’s register. The Bulgarian authorities also received a notification for the imminent deprivation of the ship’s documents and her sale rights. The arrival of this type of vessel into our territory and her behaviour, which was obvious from the surveillance systems, should have been a clear signal for the traffic operators that there was a serious problem. Instead of waiting for the ship to make contact, as it is by the books, they should have used their authority and attempt to reach her. They didn’t. The movement of the ship shows that she has experienced some difficulties that made her lose control at times and change course and speed, which should have rang the alarm bells for the officials on duty.”
Search and rescue efforts were not started until eight to 10 hours after Tolstoy sank. Even though an EPIRB signal was received SAR took some five to six hours to get underway. Without those delays help might have reached Tolstoy before she sank.
While Bulgaria has a search and rescue plan lodged with the IMO it has little basis in ground truth. Says Papukchiev: “The content of the plan does not match the version published by the State Gazette. The difference is largely due to neglecting of the work on the national search and rescue plan. During the initial review of the map in 2004, a mistake in the definition of the region has been made… The search and rescue plan ought to be amended and optimized every six months if necessary to take into account all the changes occurring in the meantime. It is puzzling that the IMO documentation does not reflect the boundaries declared in the Bulgarian regulations…”
Papukchiev is certainly not the only one worried about the state of Bulgaria’s commitment to maritime safety, search and rescue and safety investigation. In 2008 Captain Dimitar Dimitrov, head of the Bulgarian Ship Masters Association, BSMA, called for and got a resolution approved by the International Federation of Ship Masters Associations which “Expresses its concern about the apparent failure of the Flag States to properly investigate the loss of these two vessels as required by IMO; Urges the IMO Secretary General to ensure that Flag States carry out their obligations to fully investigate ship losses particular those resulting in the loss of life; Calls upon IFSMA to urge the IMO Secretary General to convey its concerns to the relevant flag and coastal states and to urge a thorough investigation so that the circumstances of these losses are understood and the lessons learnt and most importantly so that the families of the dead seafarers know how their loved ones were lost at sea.”
Of particular interest is the list of similarities Dimitrov found between the sinking of the Cambodian-registered Hera in 2004 and the Vanessa in 2008:
“1. Both ships were more than 20 years old, actually 30 years old;
2. Both ships sank in storm weather;
3. Both ships were loaded with full cargo with minimum free board;
4. Both ships continued their voyages in bad weather neglecting the forecasts;
5. Both ships did not contact the coastal states in time to require assistance;
6. Both ships’ masters did not initiate abandon and evacuation of the crew in time;
7. Both ships did not transmit distress signals and did not require assistance in time;
8. On both ships we suppose some influence from shore based staff to delay transmit of distress to save expenses in case of salvage and in both cases the Masters did not use their overriding authority to save the crew.”
Tolstoy fits the template, too.
In Part 2 MAC takes a closer look at the loss of Tolstoy and Vanessa. In the meantime we’ll leave you with the Klass interview exchange:
“Let me ask you this way – if you were a captain of a ship, would you be relaxed passing through Bulgarian territorial waters?
Frankly, if I was in a disastrous situation, I would rely on other ships nearby, not on the assistance by the Bulgarian Maritime Administration, although its rescue vessels are in Varna and Bourgas.”