Firm admits failures over River Clyde Flying Phantom tug deaths

Eric Blackley, Robert Cameron and Stephen Humphreys Eric Blackley, Robert Cameron and Stephen Humphreys died after the sinking

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The owner of a tug boat which sank in the River Clyde killing three crew has admitted health and safety failures.

Stephen Humphreys, 33, Eric Blackley, 57, and Robert Cameron, 65, died when the Flying Phantom capsized in thick fog in December 2007.

At the High Court in Glasgow, tug company Svitzer Marine Limited pleaded guilty to a series of charges.

It admitted failing to put in place a safe operating procedure after a previous grounding in December 2000.

The Flying Phantom, which was based at Greenock, was trying to guide a cargo vessel to a dock when it sank opposite Clydebank College in West Dunbartonshire on 19 December 2007.

Crewman Brian Aitchison, 37, from Coldingham, was rescued from the water after he managed to escape from the tug's wheelhouse.

The Flying Phantom The tug sank opposite Clydebank College in West Dunbartonshire

The bodies of skipper Mr Humphreys, from Greenock in Inverclyde, along with Mr Cameron, from Houston in Renfrewshire, and Mr Blackley, from Gourock, Inverclyde, were later recovered.

The tug itself was raised in a salvage operation the following month.

Svitzer Marine admitted "failing to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work" of the crew.

The court heard that The Flying Phantom suffered £150,000 of damage when a vessel it was towing on the Clyde in 2000 collided with the tug in similar circumstances.

An earlier Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) inquiry found that in the December 2007 incident the boat's towing winch had not released quickly enough, which meant it was capsized by the vessel it was pulling.

Start Quote

The families of the deceased have been undeniably let down by an FAI system which is little more than a lottery as to whether tragedies like the Flying Phantom will be investigated”

End Quote Pat Rafferty Unite

The report also highlighted failings in procedure to ensure the tug operated safely in foggy weather.

The company's QC said that what happened was an "appalling tragedy" and that Svitzer's remorse was "deep and genuine".

A judge will decide next month what fine the firm will face.

Andrew Henderson, a partner at Thompsons Solicitors, which has been acting for the victims' families said: "Today's guilty plea is to be welcomed but we must not forget that the families of the deceased have waited an unnecessarily long time for this to come to court.

"The widows and families of the deceased have been systematically failed by a system which has prolonged their grieving process by failing to hold a fatal accident inquiry to establish a clear picture of the events leading up to their loved ones deaths on that fateful night."

He added: "There has been an inability to learn lessons from the accident and prevent future tragedies due to a lack of FAI almost six years on from the deaths.

"While Svitzer's guilty plea will provide some comfort it remains to be seen what the High Court will deem a sufficient punishment."

Pat Rafferty, Scottish secretary for the union Unite, said: "The families of the deceased have been undeniably let down by an FAI system which is little more than a lottery as to whether tragedies like the Flying Phantom will be investigated.

"Unite has been calling on the Scottish government to fast-track legislation through the parliament which will radically overhaul and improve the system and today simply serves to reinforce these calls, not only for an FAI to determine exactly what happened on the night of 19 December 2007 but to ensure we have a robust and fit of purpose system for the future."

Freezing waters

The Flying Phantom had been towing the 77,000-ton Red Jasmine cargo ship, which was carrying a large load of animal feed.

The court heard how difficulties were encountered due to heavy fog on the River Clyde.

Prosecutor Alex Prentice QC said visibility had "significantly diminished".

There had been radio contact with the Flying Phantom but it ended suddenly.

Mr Aitchison recalled the tug's master Mr Humphreys being "disorientated, a bit flustered".

Mr Prentice said: "He concludes that they must have ended up at right angles with the Red Jasmine when everything happened so quickly.

"The Phantom lurched and he thought it had grounded.

"He (Aitchison) couldn't believe that it was happening and escaped via the starboard door. No one else made it out."

Mr Aitchison yelled for help as the boat sank before deciding to swim.

Two community wardens heard his cries and dialled 999. One then jumped into the freezing waters to rescue him.

'Genuine remorse'

The three missing crewmen were not found that night.

Their bodies were recovered on 23 December by police divers from the accommodation areas of the sunken tug.

A post-mortem examination found that they had died as a result of drowning.

Mr Prentice said Svitzer took "no suitable steps" to implement "control measures" identified after the 2000 incident.

He also told the court that had Svitzer been "more proactive" about safeguards for its employees the December 2007 tragedy "may have been averted".

Svitzer's QC Peter Gray said the firm never sought to "evade its responsibilites".

Mr Gray added: "The remorse felt within Svitzer Marine Limited is deep and genuine."

The advocate also said Svitzer was a "reputable employer" which had taken its responsibilites for its workers "extremely seriously".

Port operator Clydeport Operations Limited is also being prosecuted over the incident. A hearing will take place in Edinburgh in December.

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