Sole survivor recalls Clyde tug boat tragedy

The owners of a tug boat that sank in the River Clyde, killing three of its four crew, have pleaded guilty to a series of health and safety failures.

Thursday, 17th October 2013, 11:45 am
A salvage crew from lifting barge GPS Atla preparing to the tug from the river bed

Crewman, Brian Aitchison, 37, from Coldingham, managed to escape from the tug’s wheelhouse and was rescued from the water, but fellow crew members Stephen Humphreys, 33, Eric Blackley, 57, and Robert Cameron, 65, died when the Flying Phantom capsized in thick fog on December 19, 2007.

Describing the events of that night, prosecutor Alex Prentice said that visibility had “significantly diminished” because of the heavy fog on the River Clyde as the tug guided a cargo vessel to a dock.

Radio contact with the Flying Phantom had ended suddenly. As the only crew member alive to explain what happened next, Mr Aitchison recalled that the tug’s master, Mr Humphreys ,seemed to be “disorientated, a bit flustered”.

Mr Prentice QC continued: “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.”

As Mr Aitchison swam away from the vessel he called for help and two community wardens heard him and raised the alarm. One jumped into the freezing waters to rescue him.

At the High Court in Glasgow, tug company Svitzer Marine Limited admitted failing to put in place a safe operating procedure after a previous grounding in December 2000, and failing to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of the crew.

Svitzer’s QC Peter Gray said that what had happened was an “appalling tragedy” adding: “The remorse felt within Svitzer Marine Limited is deep and genuine.”

The bodies of the three missing crewmen were found four days later. A post-mortem examination found that they had died as a result of drowning.

A Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) inquiry into the capsizing of the flying Phantom found the boat’s towing winch had not released quickly enough, which meant it was tipped over by the vessel it was pulling.

Sentence will be decided next month.

Port operator Clydeport Operations Limited is also being prosecuted and a hearing is scheduled for December.

Pat Rafferty, Scottish secretary for Unite, said: “Unite has been calling on the Scottish government to fast-track legislation which will radically overhaul and improve the system and today simply serves to reinforce these calls, not only for an FAI to determine what happened, but to ensure we have a robust and fit of purpose system for the future.”