Fishing boat owner guilty of causing diver’s death

Guthrie Melville, owner of the vessel Solstice, was today found guilty of causing the death of James Irvine. Picture: Central Scotland News Agency

Guthrie Melville, owner of the vessel Solstice, was today found guilty of causing the death of James Irvine. Picture: Central Scotland News Agency

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THE owner of a shellfish boat was facing jail today after being found guilty of a series of safety failings that led to the death a diver electro-fishing razor clams in the Firth of Forth.

Father-of-two James Irvine drowned after getting into difficulties in Largo Bay, Fife, on March 24th 2011.

Mr Irvine, 42, an unemployed kitchen fitter whose only dive training had been a two-week holiday course in Turkey, had been recruited by 60-year-old Guthrie Melville, owner of the 26-foot Solstice, based at Methil Docks, also Fife.

The razor clams could be sold on at high prices for the tables of the Far East, and a day’s catch could fetch Melville over £2,000.

The Solstice was thought to have been using an unapproved technique to make the razorfish rise to the surface of the sandy bottom by trailing unprotected copper electrodes connected to an electric welder.

An expert said the set-up posed a risk of serious injury - only a few milliamps could have stopped a diver’s heart.

Though there was no way of knowing if this was what had happened to Mr Irvine when his body was found lying face-up on the river bed by a police frogman. While there was plenty of air left in his breathing tank, neither of his two air-supply regulators was in his mouth, and he had drowned.

In the words of prosecutor Lousie Beattie, he was left “truly on his own”, eight metres down in the Forth, because Melville had no second diver on standby to rescue him, no means of communicating with him, and no means of getting him from the water onto the boat in an emergency.

He had also failed to ensure that Mr Irvine was wearing an inflatable jacket, known as a “bouyancy control device” which he could have used to get to the surface quickly, and he had no lifeline.

The only means anyone on the Solstice had of telling how he was getting on underwater was to look for bubbles coming up to the surface, and when they stopped, Melville and his only crewman, an elderly retired builder called Carl Smart, could only panic.

Melville, who had failed to complete a diver-training course he had been on himself, could not even get his radio to work - and had to phone the police to ask them to call the coastguard.

At the end of a five-day trial at Stirling Sheriff Court, jurors took just two hours to find Melville guilty, by a majority, of a string of breaches of diving at work and Health and Safety regulations, “in consequence of which” Mr Irvine failed to surface and drowned. It was Mr Irvine’s first day’s work as a diver.

Melville was also found guilty of putting five other divers at risk through similar failings over a six year period between April 2005 and the date of the tragedy.

Melville, of Kirkburn Drive, Cardenden, Fife, denied the offences. He did not give evidence, but his defence claimed that Mr Irvine had simply been diving for pleasure. He showed no emotion when the verdicts were announced.

A charge of attempting to defeat the ends of justice was dropped.

Sheriff William Gilchrist deferred sentence for reports.

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The charges of which Melville was convicted carry possible a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment.

The court heard earlier that Mr Irvine had been “dubious” and “apprehensive” before the fatal dive.

His wife Hazel, 42, said he had he got a phone call from Melville, whom he had never met, before he died.

She said Mr Irvine, her husband of 21 years, told her that he would be paid between £100 and £150 a day, going down by himself, putting in rods, and bringing up razor clams.

He said the rods were similar to cattle prods, and would “give you a jolt”, but not enough to do any damage.

A friend of Mr Irvine, Linda Morton, 49, told the court: “To be honest I was shocked he actually did it, but what you do when you’re desperate for money?”

The court heard that the rods were found and photographed on the Solstice the day after the accident, but when police went back a week later to seize them as evidence they had gone - Melville told officers he had dumped them in the sea.

Defence advocate Greg Sanders said there was “no evidence” to suggest that the electrical apparatus had anything to do with Mr Irvine’s death.

Up to a dozen bundles of valuable clams were also dumped on the sea bed.

Outside court, Hazel Irvine said Melville deserved prison.

She said: “We are just pleased with the guilty verdict and we really hope he goes to jail.”

Mr Irvine’s daughter Chloe, 18, said: “He failed to protect five other men, so if this hadn’t happened to my dad, sooner or later it would have happened to someone else.”

Mr Irvine’s son Alan, 25, said: “The safety elements are really concerning and we just hope everything surrounding that stops.

“We just don’t want to see what happened to our dad happen to anyone else.”

Richard Irvine, 39, brother of the dead man, said James was “an exceptional, very strong diver”, for whom safety was “paramount”.

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