Spanish fishing tragedy survivors appear in court amid negligence claims

Captain of boat that lost 21 crew members investigated for manslaughter

The survivors of Spain’s worst fishing tragedy in four decades appeared in court on Monday as part of an investigation into claims the boat’s captain was guilty of negligence.

Twenty-one people died when the Villa de Pitanxo, a 50m vessel from the northwestern region of Galicia, sank around 450km off the coast of Newfoundland, in Canada, in February.

Three of the 24-strong crew survived and were found floating in a life raft: the boat’s captain, Juan Padín, his nephew, Eduardo Rial, and Samuel Kwesi. Nine bodies were recovered.

Mr Kwesi was one of three Ghanaian crew members. There were also five Peruvians on board.

All three survivors appeared before the National Court in Madrid. Mr Padín is being investigated for possible manslaughter due to his handling of the vessel shortly before it sank. The other two appeared as witnesses in the case.

In the immediate wake of the tragedy, Mr Padín told investigators that the engine of the Villa de Pitanxo failed, causing the boat to run into trouble in poor weather at about 4am on February 15th.

Although he initially corroborated the captain’s account, Mr Kwesi later gave a different version of events, saying Mr Padín had refused to release the fishing net when the boat started to list, putting them in more danger. He also told investigators Mr Padín failed to tell crew members to put on their life jackets and thermal clothes, although he and his nephew were already wearing them.

Ismael Moreno, the judge leading the investigation, has said there was enough evidence for Mr Padín to face accusations of “at least 21 counts of manslaughter due to serious negligence and crimes against workers’ rights”.

There has already been a legal wrangle. A court in the Galician town of Marín, where the boat was from, refused to take on the case, arguing that because the incident had happened in Canadian waters the national court should oversee it.

Besides the legal investigation, Spain’s maritime accident commission is also investigating the incident.

Meanwhile, relatives of the crew members who died have presented a separate lawsuit against the captain, his nephew and the company that owned the vessel, Grupo Nores de Marín. Their complaint includes accusations of manslaughter and falsifying documents.

The families have also accused the central government of failing to investigate properly. Last week some of them boarded a motorboat and approached the oceanographic vessel Vizconde de Eza in the port of Vigo before it departed for Canadian waters, where it is due to carry out scientific research. The relatives said the boat should attempt to locate the wreck of the Villa de Pitanxo and the 12 bodies that were never recovered, given it will be in the area where the fishing vessel sank.

“The truth will come out because those who died and disappeared have their families, friends and all the people who work at sea who are going to keep insisting that this is investigated,” said María José de Pazo, the daughter of one of those who died.

However, the central government’s delegate in Galicia, José Miñones, said that the Vizconde de Eza is not equipped to search for wrecks on the seabed and that trying to carry out such an operation could put its own crew in danger. “We share the need for this to be clarified,” Mr Miñones said of the causes of the incident.

Galicia has a long history of fishing disasters. Last week a disaster was averted when Irish and British rescue services recovered all 11 crew from a Galician vessel that ran into trouble off Mizen Head.

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe

Guy Hedgecoe is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Spain