Sole survivor holds key to tug mystery

THE search for the three crew members of a tug that capsized in heavy fog on the River Clyde was temporarily called off last night, with rescuers admitting there was little chance of finding them alive.

The missing men from the Flying Phantom have been named as Stephen Humphries, 33, the skipper from Greenock; Robert Cameron, 65, an engineer from Houston, Renfrewshire; and Eric Blackley, 50, a crew member from Gourock.

Brian Aitchison, 37, the fourth crew member, managed to swim to shore at Clydebank on Wednesday evening. His cries were heard by Brian Torrie and Charlie Ayre, community safety wardens, and he was rescued by a passing boat after the Coastguard was alerted.

He was discharged from the Western Infirmary yesterday afternoon. His wife Alison said last night: "He is extremely shaken by the whole tragedy and, naturally, he is devastated at the loss of the other members of the crew."

John Curry, the managing director of Svitzer UK, which owns the tug, said it is holding its own inquiry, but will co- operate with one launched by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch.

Clyde Coastguard said the search, which had been hampered by heavy fog giving a visibility of only 15 metres, will resume at first light today.

Two orange buoys marked the location of the sunken tug on the river near the former John Brown shipyard, close to the mouth of the River Cart.

Tugs and smaller vessels, including Glasgow City Council's St Mungo boat, which cleans the river, earlier searched in the shadow of the Titan crane.

The tug, which was one of three helping to tow the bulk-carrier Red Jamine into George V Dock in Glasgow, capsized near Clydebank at 6:10pm on Wednesday.

Inspector Louis Jeffrey, of Strathclyde Police, said:

"Given the passage of time, the operation is now being treated as a recovery (rather than a rescue] operation for practical policing purposes."

The families of the missing men had been informed of this and were being given support by the police, he added.

Mr Jeffrey said the rescued sailor was "lucid" and speaking to police about what had happened. He added that Mr Aitchison was now the "primary source" of information in the accident inquiry.

Mr Curry, speaking on behalf of the shipping company, said: "This has been a tragic accident. We are maintaining constant contact with the families of all four crew members."

Ian Plater, Clyde Coastguard's sector manager, confirmed that a number of vessels had resumed the search shortly after 7am yesterday.

"Most of the units who took part in the search on Wednesday night came back at first light," he said. "We still have no idea what went wrong and I would not like to speculate on the cause."

Mr Plater said conditions yesterday were "slightly better" than on Wednesday night, but still "extremely cold".

"At midnight, the water was just two degrees above freezing. It's probably not much more above that now," he added, before the search was called off for the night. "We've far exceeded the survival time of anybody that was in the water last night. But with search and rescue we never say never."

Caledonian MacBrayne said the missing skipper, Mr Humphries, was well-known to them as he was employed by sub-contractors who operated some of its boats. A spokesman said: "He has been a very competent seaman and the kind of person you could depend on. He was also very popular around the place as he tends to get on very well with everyone, so he has been a great asset."

Mr Humphries often skippered the AliCat catamaran, which runs between Gourock and Dunoon. CalMac said that today the vessel was taken off this route to help with the search efforts.

The Flying Phantom had helped guide the QE2 as it arrived at the Ocean Terminal on the Firth of Clyde in September.

Seven years ago, it suffered a punctured hull in an accident. On 28 December, 2000, it hit an underwater obstacle while escorting an Egyptian vessel off Dumbarton and was beached to prevent sinking.

Friends pay tribute to a 'complete professional' who died amid the fog

AS THEIR spotlights pierced through the white wall of the fog, the tugmasters of the Clyde searched in vain for one their brothers.

The skipper of the Flying Phantom had navigated the channel at the mouth of the River Cart thousands of times before on his way to the River Clyde Boat Yard in Clydebank.

The route was second nature to Stevie Humphries.

Having given up a job as a ferry master with Caledonian MacBrayne for the vessels he loved, he was still only 33 and in his prime as a tugmaster.

Well respected, always in demand, and with a newborn baby at home, Mr Humphries was "weaned on the sea" and appeared to have it all – before tragedy took it away.

A colleague and friend of Mr Humphries last night told The Scotsman how one crewman's life was saved after the Flying Phantom capsized on Wednesday night. He also spoke of his respect and admiration for the vessel's skipper.

The search for Greenock-born Mr Humphries – along with his 65-year-old engineer, Robert Cameron, from Houston, Renfrewshire, and Eric Blackley, 57, from Gourock, Inverclyde – was all but brought to an end at 4:30pm yesterday. So poor was the visibility underwater that police and navy divers were forced to search the vessel by feeling around its edges.

As dense fog again descended on the river, low tide brought the Flying Phantom's hull just above the surface. There, presumed dead, the boat's skipper remained at sea, the place where he excelled during his lifetime.

It was around 6:10pm on Wednesday when Keith Russell knew something was wrong. Ordinarily, the former boatman who is now the co-director, partner and operations manager of Offshore Workboats, a modest boat yard in Clydebank, would have been home. But he had reason to stay behind at the firm's small office in a portable cabin, surrounded by workboats and rusting hulks.

Mr Humphries, a "great personal friend" for two decades, was due to dock as he had done countless times before. His tug was pulling the bulk carrier Red Jasmine, the largest cargo ship to arrive at the boat yard in about a decade.

However, when the Flying Phantom finally came into partial sight through the fog opposite Clydebank College, Mr Russell knew all was not as it should be. The boat appeared to run aground and began to capsize.

Immediately, he took a workboat and single-handedly made his way into the middle of the river towards desperate screams. He was the first to the scene but could save only one life.

Brian Aitchison, 37, was plucked from the water by Mr Russell and taken to hospital to be treated for severe shock.

But as night descended and the temperature dropped to 2.5C, those intimate with the Clyde's every ebb and flow knew what had happened.

As well as four Coastguard rescue teams, three RNLI lifeboats, and Royal Navy and Strathclyde Police divers, about a dozen boats from the River Clyde Boat Yard volunteered to help.

There are five firms, employing about 100 men, which work the tugs on the Clyde. It is a community where camaraderie prevails, where everyone knows each other and lends a helping hand – driving one another's boats, or assisting with repairs. Mr Humphries was one of the industry's most respected and well-liked figures.

Yet no amount of goodwill could save his life, or those of his two missing crew. As conditions worsened, the searchers were stood down early yesterday. The men will now be recovered, not rescued.

Saddened as they were to admit it, men of the water like Rex Lyons knew there was no hope. "After two to three hours in those conditions, a search is a waste of time. You don't last for long," he said.

Mr Lyons, the managing director of Offshore Workboats, also knew Mr Humphries well. He considered the skipper one of the finest exponents of his profession, describing Mr Humphries as the "consummate professional, always round the docks helping everyone out".

His life, Mr Lyons believes, was snuffed out in an accident that took only a split second to manifest itself.

"Even pros have accidents," he explained. "Most of the time, it involves hitting another boat, or a pier, and getting a ribbing off the boys, but it's incomprehensible that a man like him could lose his life this way.

"It's like the difference between a driver denting a parked car or running over a child. It's a dreadful tragedy."

Mr Lyons attested that Mr Humphries was born to be a tugmaster. Having grown up in Greenock, with its rich maritime heritage, he had started out young, helping on tugs, before progressing to the position of workboat operator.

Then came a spell as a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry master on the Ali Cat vessel's crossings from Gourock to Dunoon.

The position did not fulfil him and he soon left to work for the UK operation of the Danish firm, Svitzer, based in Rotterdam for a spell before returning to Scotland with the firm.

Frequently, offers of employment promising higher wages and more glamorous vessels, would come his way. But Mr Humphries never had his head turned. He was interested only in life on the tugs.

Even in his own time, Mr Humphries would buy run-down workboats and refurbish them before selling them on.

Only last month, he sent word around the tug community that he was looking to buy a new boat. Mr Lyons said that was symptomatic of his love of the sea.

"You couldn't get him off a boat, basically," he recalled. "He was a boatman and a wheeler and a dealer. But he was very straight. He only did extra jobs for beer money."

Mr Lyons added: "Even when he had a day off from Svitzer, he'd come and work for us. It wasn't anything sneaky. His employers knew about it. He just couldn't stay away from the water. He was one of the first guys I'd call."

Given the wealth of Mr Humphries' experience, Mr Lyons has no doubts that the tragedy of the Flying Phantom cannot be put down to bad seamanship.

As part of his training, he commanded various simulators and performed several mock runs in variable weather.

Mr Lyons insisted the Flying Phantom, built in 1981, was "brilliantly maintained".

He said: "Stevie was meticulous about his equipment, and Svitzer paid for anything and everything. Even if he noticed the tiniest of flaws in a rope, it'd be scrapped and replaced. That tug was a premiere vessel. When it was out on the river people would know it, and think nothing could go wrong."

Mr Lyons said the severe fog had doubtless played a part in the accident. The 59-year-old said: "You'd have to be incredibly naive not to realise that the weather is a very important factor. The amount of fog that was on the river has an impact on a crew's concentration – they have to focus on it more than they would clear, or even wet and windy conditions.

"Something's gone horribly wrong, but it wasn't through neglect or bad seamanship.

"When a tug is in trouble, it can release the sea rope. It's possible the tug went a little too close to the bank and the automatic release failed. I think there was a geometry problem between the towrope and the momentum of the ship. The only way to roll a tug over is with the towrope, and it must have got in a position where it couldn't be released."

&#149 Additional reporting by Lindsay Mcintosh

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