Tugs drag disabled tanker off ledge into open sea


SALVAGE experts and the combined effort of a dozen St raining tugs last night succeeded in freeing the crippled supertanker, Sea Empress, from a rocky ledge.

Without ceremony, and moving tantalisingly slowly, the giant vessel came free shortly before 7.15 p.m. and was moved out into open sea near the headland at St Ann's Head, Pembrokeshire.

Marine engineers were last night making it secure at a safer location in the estuary for the next stage of the multi million pound operation to save the ship and prevent further oil pollution.

A Milford Haven coastguard spokesman said: "We are delighted Sea Empress is off the rocks at last.

"But there is no feeling of euphoria here because much work still needs to be done, both at sea and ashore to clean up after this incident.

"Tonight's operation is the result of the efforts of a lot of people who have been working tremendously hard since this incident."

The vessel moved "very slowly", the coastguard service added. "So far, so good. It looks like a successful operation to get her off."

Experts with the British Marine Pollution Control Unit were last night meeting salvage crews to finalise the next stage of the rescue plan, to offload 65,000 tonnes of remaining oil in the badly holed vessel's cargo tanks.

A smaller tanker, the 35,000 tonne Star Bergen, was standing by to be brought alongside to receive some of the oil. The work could start today if conditions are favourable.

There are increasing fears that after being stuck fast on rocks for so long it may soon be impossible to repair the Sea Empress, which has 12 of its 17 cargo tanks ruptured.

But the 18,000 h.p. engine, winches and pumps were still working to help last night's operation.

"Everything is centred on us giving Sea Empress maximum buoyancy tonight," said a leading salvage expert, Mr Stephen Dennison. The weather is favourable and we believe our chances have improved since the attempt on Tuesday night."

Conservation groups said than 500 oiled birds were treated yesterday the highest daily casualty figure so far.

Welsh Secretary William Hague announced a £250,000 emergency, grant to the Countryside Council for Wales to help assess damage.

Amid a growing storm of criticism about the government's handling of the emergency, the shipping and aviation minister Lord Goschen, said every possible piece of salvage equipment had been made available. It was not practical to have such equipment standing by at every major oil terminal, he insisted.

But the shadow transport minister, Mr Graham Allen, accused the Transport Secretary, Sir George Young, and Lord Goschen of making an error of judgment, saying they should have summoned two adequately powered tugs to take the Sea Empress off the rocks immediately the accident happened.

"This action should have begun on Friday and vessels could have been summoned from other European countries if necessary," Mr Allen said.

Labour also accused the government of failing to implement Lord Donaldson's inquiry recommendations in the wake of the Braer disaster on providing adequate tug capacity.

"That failure and indecision over the weekend may now cost the marine environment dear," Mr Allen said.

Greenpeace yesterday wrote to the British Prime Minister demanding that he ensure that oil companies such as Texaco took full responsibility and were fully liable for such spills as the Sea Empress.

The environment group added that the only way to prevent such pollution disasters was for Mr Major to commit himself to the phase out of oil and the introduction of renewable energy.