Bulgarian search and rescue efforts following the sinking of MV Tolstoy have been forcefully criticised by a volunteer SAR service in a paper based on official records and reports but not yet, as far as we know, published in the West. BULSAR alleges that two key personnel were not competent, a third critical position had yet to be filled, and that many survivors were doomed by inadequate SAR equipment and poor search methodologies.
M/V Tolstoy, her two lifeboats unusable, her gyrocompass broken, was on passage from Rostov to Nemrut, Turkey, a voyage she was not designed or built to carry out, when her hull snapped in a storm in the Sea of Azov in the morning of 27 September 2008 with the loss of eight of her 10 crew. She had been expelled from the North Korean registry a year before and the DPRK registry had alerted port state control authorities that the flag state registration was invalid.
In his analysis, Capt. Nikifor Guertchev, CEO of Bulsar which operates with about 200 volunteers, defends the “efforts and self-denial of people from structures such as The Bulgarian Navy, National Bureau Border Police, The Civil Defence Authorities, who put at risk their lives, while searching for any traces of survivors at the sea” but criticises “the officials responsible for organization, planning and implementation of the operation of Search and Rescue”.
He also expresses “concern regarding to the serious attempts of high ranking state officials aiming to prevent publishing of this investigation and censor such approach in attempt to restrain the adopted right of public for receiving correct and full information for exercising prevention and public control.”
Of three key personnel, one, the SAR Coordinator, had no evidence of competency in SAR management. A second key position, SAR Mission Coordinator, had no competency to carry out his tasks and a third, the On-Scene Coordinator appears not to have been appointed.
Says the report: “An essential point regarding to (sic) the competence of the officials appointed at the first two levels of management, was the fact that they did not have suitable professional SAR competence. In the report from IMO audit, conduced in November 2008, it is stated that documents, confirming staff competence of the Safety Service of Executive Agency ‘Maritime Administration’, are missing.”
Guertchev says that Tolstoy exhibited “random and unusual deviations from the course, at some 150 to 250 to port and starboard” which should that alerted the Maritime Safety Coordination Centre (MRCC) –Varna to a potential problem and declare a state of “Uncertainty”, which would have led to efforts to locate, identify and communicate with Tolstoy. “…no operator was available in VTMIS, and the coordinator did not undertake the actions described above. We are not able to establish the reasons whether this was result due to the coordinator’s negligence and/or structural and organizational failures”.
A dedicated search and rescue vessel, SRU Perin, was not dispatched because its documents were expired and it didn’t have a crew. Instead a harbour tug, Mizra, without a trained SAR crew aboard, was dispatched.
AIS tracking of the rescue vessel shows that it did not apply any of the well-established search patterns for SAR.
A navy helicopter sent to the site did not carry floatation devices for anyone who might be seen in the water.
Suspension of rescue operations due to darkness is also criticised in the Bulsar report:
“The operation of search and rescue was suspended around 18:30 hours on the day of ship sinking in an absolutely intolerable, illegal, and unjustified manner and no logical point, with the explanation of “darkness”. Suspension of search on such ground is a precedent in the world SAR practice and this is inadmissible. Such decision leaves in fact the eventual survivors to the mercy of fate. The above is evident from statements of the two survivors rescued by chance by the nearby sailing Belgian yacht… With suspension of search after 18:30 hours, and if there were any other survivors, their life resources were irresponsibly exhausted, and in breach of any moral and official duties.”
BULSAR was not included in the operation, although it has a track record of successful operations. It operates with two air rescue units and more than 30 ‘nautical units’, four of which are situated in the region of Tsarevo and could have joined the operation. Says Guertchev” “For instance one of the aircrafts could be prepared only in 2 hours time and join the operation together with purposely trained staff for air surveillance and coordination and to investigate a particular area at low speed (120 km/h) and at suitable low height continuously for 6 hours. This resource was not included despite its full readiness was well-known and commented.”
In its conclusion, the report urges: “National Investigating Authorities to initiate investigation for ‘the actions of the rescue structures represented by the above mentioned officials’, whose actions ended without discovering the personnel from m/v Tolstoy.
The report follows a tough and, some would say, embarrassing year for Bulgaria’s transport ministry. In early 2008 its newly-appointed chief investigator resigned citing interference which he felt compromised his work, the transport ministry has been hit by allegations of conflict of interest, the Bulgarian maritime industry boycotted the new Head of Maritime Administration, and an IMO voluntary audit, a copy has been provided to MAC, which expresses key concerns about accident investigation and SAR operations.
Says the IMO audit: “It was established during the audit that this division does not have sufficient qualified maritime investigation inspectors… it was difficult to establish that there is a systematic procedure for carrying out activities related to maritime accident investigations. During the audit there was no objective evidence to confirm that investigations carried out previously have been reported to the IMO as required… it could not be established that lessons learned, following accident
investigation, had been identified in order to prevent reoccurrence of such an
accident and if the results of such investigations were made public”
Of SAR, the audit says: “During the audit it was established that no records of qualifications and training of the MRCC Varna duty staff are available… There was no evidence to suggest that the State carries out periodic exercises to test the effectiveness of passenger ship search and rescue co-operation plans”.
Bulgaria: A Man Resigned