Mariner alerted to wiring, inquest told

 

A RETIRED master mariner who drowned along with two friends after they were forced to abandon their boat after it caught fire in Bantry Bay had been alerted months earlier to problems with the electrical wiring on the boat.

Wolfgang “Mike” Schmidt (70), Richard Harmon (69) and Wolfgang Schröder (62), who were on an angling trip, all died from drowning near Adrigole Harbour in Bantry Bay on August 16th last after they were forced to abandon Mr Schmidt’s motor cruiser, Castaway, when a fire broke out on board.

Shipwright John Murphy yesterday told an inquest into the men’s deaths that he carried out repairs to the engines and fuel tank of the boat in May 2010.

In the course of the repairs, he discovered that electrical wires to the capstan had been cut but were still live. He made them safe.

He also noticed that the wiring behind the instrument panel was very untidy.

He had expressed concern about it to Mr Schmidt who told him that he planned to sell the boat at the end of the season and said he would bring it back to him before then to tidy up the wiring.

“My concern was the state of the wiring . . . I drew his attention to it – the fact that he was a master mariner, I felt he was capable of handling the vessel,” said Mr Murphy.

While the vessel was seaworthy, he added, he would not have gone to sea himself with it in that state.

Mr Murphy said he was not a marine surveyor but it appeared there had been some sort of electrical overload which caused the wiring to overheat.

The fact that the wiring was connected directly to the battery without an isolation switch or fuse board had compounded the problem. Coroner for west Cork Frank O’Connell noted that it had not been possible to recover the Castaway which sank after Mr Schmidt, Mr Harmon, Mr Schröder and their friend, survivor Ed Dziato (47), abandoned the burning vessel because of the extreme heat from the fire.

Mr Dziato told how they had spotted smoke coming from behind a control panel after they had put on the bilge pumps to clear water from below. When they removed the panel, they discovered that the insulation on the wiring had melted away and fire quickly broke out.

They had twice tried to quench the blaze with a powder fire extinguisher but on each occasion, the flames shot back up. The blaze quickly engulfed the wheelhouse and they were unable to reach the lifejackets which were stored forward of the wheelhouse.

The inquest heard that Mr Dziato rang the emergency services on his mobile phone to alert them within five minutes of the fire breaking out and all four were plucked from the water some 15 minutes later by an Irish Coast Guard Sikorsky helicopter.

However, Mr Schmidt, who had had a lung removed after suffering from cancer, Mr Schröder, who suffered from coronary heart problems, and Mr Harmon were all pronounced dead by a local GP after the helicopter landed at Castletownbere pier, the inquest heard.

The inquest heard Mr Schmidt, Mr Schröder and Mr Dziato had been drinking.

Toxicology tests carried out on Mr Schmidt showed that he had an alcohol level of 152mg per 100ml of blood but Mr Dziato said he did not believe Mr Schmidt was impaired in any way by the alcohol.

The coroner returned verdicts of accidental death due to drowning in the case of all three men. Mr O’Connell noted how sad it was for the retired men to lose their lives in such tragic circumstances while enjoying the beauty of west Cork on an angling trip.

SURVIVOR'S TESTIMONY FLAMES ENGULFED BOAT

AMERICAN Ed Dziato (47) yesterday told how an angling trip in Bantry Bay in Co Cork turned to tragedy when three of his friends died after they were forced to climb into the water when their boat caught fire.

Mr Dziato told the inquests into the deaths of Richard Harmon, Glengarriff, Wolfgang “Mike” Schmidt, Firkeale, Glengarriff, and Wolfgang Schröder, Dromleigh South, Bantry, how they had set out on August 16th last for a day’s angling. As they turned for home, they noticed smoke coming from behind a console in the wheelhouse.

When they removed it, they saw the insulation was melting. The area quickly ignited in flames and continued to burn despite attempts to quench it with a powder fire extinguisher.

“I told Mike the flames weren’t going down. He was very calm. He couldn’t believe what was happening . . . We all went to the back of the boat to think of what to do,” Mr Dziato said.

After they rang the emergency services, Mr Schröder threw two bumpers into the water to use as flotation devices. All four climbed into the water.

“We hung on to the back of the boat for about two minutes. At that stage, the flames had engulfed the cabin and we could hear things bursting with pressure. We decided to push ourselves away from the boat.

“Richard had said he couldn’t swim . . . I stayed with Richard as he was grabbing me. I told him to calm down, to take off his boots and jacket and lay on his back, which he did.

“I put one hand under his back while I paddled with the other. After a few moments, he just rolled and looked at me with a look of ‘thank you’ in his eyes, then his eyes just rolled back, foam came out of his mouth and I let him go.

Mr Dziato later swam into Mr Schmidt, who was face down in the water. “I tried to roll him over to tell him to hang on but I couldn’t roll him over. ”

BARRY ROCHE