Clyde tugboat sinking: Company fined £1.7m

The operator of a tugboat which sank, claiming the lives of three crewmen, was fined £1.7 million at the High Court in Edinburgh yesterday.
A crew salvage the Flying Phantom, which sank on the River Clyde. Picture: Donald MacLeodA crew salvage the Flying Phantom, which sank on the River Clyde. Picture: Donald MacLeod
A crew salvage the Flying Phantom, which sank on the River Clyde. Picture: Donald MacLeod

The Flying Phantom capsized in thick fog in December 2007 while towing a cargo vessel at Clydebank on the River Clyde.

At the High Court in Glasgow last month, Svitzer Marine Ltd admitted a series of health and safety breaches.

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It emerged the Danish firm failed to act after a similar incident involving the Flying Phantom in December 2000.

The sinking occurred six days before Christmas when the tug ran aground in the darkness and fog, and was pulled over by cargo boat the Red Jasmine.

Captain Stephen Humphreys, 33, and Eric Blackley, 57, both from Gourock, Inverclyde, died along with Bob Cameron, 65, from Houston, Renfrewshire.

A fourth crewman, Brian Aitchison, 37, from Coldingham in the Borders, was rescued after managing to swim clear and cling to a buoy.

Port operator Clydeport Operations Ltd is also being prosecuted over the incident. A hearing is due to take place in Edinburgh next month.

Judge Lord Turnbull said the case was marked by Svitzer’s “enduring failure to take proper account of the level of risk” of towing in reduced visibility, as reported by the company’s own experts following an investigation into an incident on the Clyde seven years previously.

On 29 December, 2000, the ­Greenock-based tug suffered £150,000 of damage when it was hit by a vessel it was towing, the Egyptian carrier Abu Eglia.

Company managers identified a high risk of “girting”, or the tug being overtaken by the vessel being towed, while operating on a narrow stretch of water in foggy conditions.

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Despite this, Svitzer did not amend its operation manual or introduce procedures to avert the risk, Lord Turnbull said.

He acknowledged a financial penalty “might seem entirely inadequate” for the loss of three lives. The men, he said, “had loving families who have had to endure the grief of their loss over the years until now”.

The judge also said he found it difficult to understand why proceedings had taken so long to come to court, but said Svitzer had complied with prosecutors throughout the process and he accepted the firm was “genuinely remorseful” over the tragedy.

On the night of the sinking, the last radio contact with the Flying Phantom occurred just before 6pm when the crew told the Red Jasmine pilot: “We’re stuck at present on the bank.”

The court was told the pilot replied: “Let go the line then, please”, to which the Phantom responded: “Will do.”

Mr Aitchison and Mr Humphreys were in the wheelhouse and the others below when the tug lurched to one side.

The survivor pressed the tow release button but “the winch appears not to have released the towline quickly enough”, prosecutors said. Advocate depute Alex Prentice told last month’s hearing: “As it started to sink, [Mr Aitchison] was standing on the hull shouting for help, but not being answered.

“As the water started to rise… he decided to swim for it. He held on to the buoy, shouting for help.”

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At 6:15pm, two Clydebank community wardens on the bank heard cries for help and called 999. One of the men took a boat out on to the river to investigate and found Mr Aitchison clinging to a buoy.

Poor weather conditions meant the bodies of the three other crew were not recovered by divers until 23 December.

The Flying Phantom was salvaged the following month.

Svitzer pleaded guilty under the Health and Safety at Work Act to failing to ensure the safety of its employees.

It admitted failure to put in place a procedure for instructing employees what to do to avoid the increased risks associated with towing in darkness and dense fog.

The court heard Svitzer earned a profit after tax of around £2.7m in 2009.

Skipper Mr Humphreys left behind a wife, a young daughter and two stepsons, and was a “much loved son, brother and uncle’’, a previous hearing was told.

In a statement, Mr Humphreys’ wife Helen said: “I welcome the fact that sentence has been passed on Svitzer Marine Limited today and recognise that the company have admitted their guilt.”

Engineer Mr Cameron was a father of three daughters and a grandfather. He spent his career on the Clyde and was a ‘“well-known, popular character’’.

Mr Blackley had been married for 36 years and had a son and a daughter. His wife remembered him as someone who always had time to spare for those who needed it, the court heard.