Health and safety rules could have been broken to rescue fishermen

A RETIRED fire chief told an inquiry he would have been prepared to break health and safety rules to save four fishermen who died in Loch Awe.

• A helicopter searches the shores of Loch Awe in March last year, the day after four fishermen went missing in thick fog. Picture: PA

John Brisco, 53, said he would have swum to the men if the night had been clear, and would have launched a boat in the thick fog which shrouded the loch.

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But Mr Brisco, the full-time watch commander in charge of the March 2009 call-out to Loch Awe, told a fatal accident inquiry in Oban yesterday that no local vessel was available.

He revealed that a Zodiac inflatable rescue boat, easily transportable by road, had been stored, unused, in the fire station in Oban for two or three years.

He said senior management had ordered it to be taken away just six months before the fishing trip tragedy – even though the Oban Fire team had requested training to use it.

Glasgow men Craig Currie, 30, Thomas Douglas, 36, William Carty, 47 and Stephen Carty, 42, lost their lives in March 2009, after getting into difficulties as they tried to return by boat across the loch from the Tight Line pub to their camp site, in the dark and in thick fog.

Asked by Sheriff Douglas Small if it would have made a difference if the firefighters had had a Zodiac boat on the night of the tragedy, Mr Brisco replied: "If I had had a Zodiac boat they would all have been rescued. We would have tied a line on to the boat, the crew wouldn't have been in any danger."

He said he had had a fireman with him that night who had local knowledge of the loch, to assist with navigation.

He said Strathclyde Fire rules strictly forbid crew from entering the water at rescues unless they had a Zodiac boat and were fully trained to use it.

But he said even without a boat, in different weather conditions, a rescue would have been attempted.

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He said: "If it was a clear night I am sure we would have got them out of the water. We would probably go against procedure and swim out to them if they were close enough.

"You have to make decisions because that is the service we are in and sometimes health and safety is – you are not allowed to think for yourself."

Questioned by Strathclyde Fire representative Kay Pitt about the wisdom of such actions Mr Brisco said he would have taken a chance, knowing that if it had "gone pear-shaped" it was his responsibility. He said: "The chaps were in, we take chances."

Asked by Ms Pitt if he was aware Zodiac training took three years, he said: "As far as I know you went for a fortnight's course and (then] come back and go back for another fortnight."

He said all the Oban team had wanted the boat to be in use in the local area: "Everyone in the station expressed a wish to have it, they wanted to use it, because it was just lying there not getting used ever since it was there."

Earlier the inquiry heard that a rescue helicopter crew were in an impossible situation when they were tasked to assist the four fishermen in difficulties.

The inquiry heard evidence from Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Bryan Nicholas, 47, who

described the conditions when they arrived at the loch: "From about 250ft, from the loch surface up, was thick fog – extending from the head of the loch back and also in the Pass of Brander."

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One of the techniques available for water rescue in bad weather would have been to "hover taxi" a descent.

He said: "It was a consideration, but ruled out. This (the fog] was going all the way down to the surface so we never had an opportunity to do this."

He said the noise and wind speed of the helicopter – about 80-90mph – might have hindered rescuers communicating with the fishermen, so hovering may not have been helpful.

The inquiry continues today.