Clyde tug boat owner admits safety failures

The owner of a tug boat which capsized killing three crew has admitted health and safety failures.

Salvage crew prepare to raise the Flying Phantom from the river bed in 2008. Picture: Donald Macleod

The Flying Phantom sank in freezing fog in December 2007 while towing a cargo vessel on the River Clyde near Glasgow.

At the High Court in Glasgow yesterday, tug company Svitzer Marine Limited pleaded guilty to a series of health and safety breaches, including failing to put in place a safe operating procedure following the grounding of the Flying Phantom in foggy conditions in a previous incident in December 2000.

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Stephen Humphreys, 33, from Greenock, Inverclyde; Eric Blackley, 57, from Gourock; and Bob Cameron, 65, from Houston, Renfrewshire, all died when the tug sank. A fourth man, Brian Aitchison, 37, from Coldingham in the Borders, was rescued after he managed to escape from the tug’s wheelhouse.

The accident happened when The Flying Phantom was towing the 39,738-tonne carrier Red Jasmine to a dock in the Clyde Harbour area on the evening of 19 December.

Dense fog severely restricted visibility and the crew could not see the boat they were towing. The larger vessel overtook the tug and caused it to capsize. The bodies of the dead men were later recovered from the sea.

The tug itself was raised in a salvage operation the following month.

A Marine Accident Investigation Branch report, published in 2008, found that the 40 metre vessel had been pulled over by its own towrope, and criticised a failure to define operational limits or procedures for tug operators when towing in restricted visibility.

It also highlighted the fact that the tug’s watertight engine room door was left open and stated the risk assessment carried out by Clydeport was poor.

Svitzer Marine yesterday admitted to “failing to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work” of the crew.

In 2000, The Flying Phantom suffered £150,000 of damage when a vessel it was towing on the Clyde collided with the tug in similar circumstances, the court heard.

Last December, Mr Humphreys’ widow Helen, alongside other relatives of the men, called for a Fatal Accident Inquiry into the incident.

She said: “My own experience of the current system of investigation of workplace fatalities since the death of Stephen has allowed me to see first hand the deficiencies in the process.

“In particular, I have experienced frustration at the length of time taken, with no resolution in sight, and I have been left feeling a lot of anger at the lack of respect for Stephen’s life and the feelings of his family.”

The Flying Phantom was built in 1981 for the Clyde Shipping Company and was later taken into the hands of English firm Svitzer.