Warning of 'inconvenient truth' over Trident disaster 35 years ago

THE families bereaved in the Trident tragedy were yesterday warned they may have to face an "inconvenient truth" as the long-awaited new inquiry into one of Scotland's worst fishing disasters finally got under way.

Seven fishermen lost their lives when the Peterhead-registered trawler foundered in stormy seas off Caithness on 3 October 1974 while sailing to its home port from the West Coast. The bodies of the men who drowned have never been found.

A fatal accident inquiry, held eight months after the disaster, concluded it was probable that the Trident had foundered after taking aboard "a sea or succession of seas" and that the "deficient stability" in her design had probably contributed to the loss of the trawler. It is a verdict which the families have refused to accept.

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They have claimed for more than three decades that it was Trident's instability alone which caused the vessel to sink and that there was a design fault. They hold the vessel's designer, Andrew Cumming, responsible.

However, yesterday, as the reopened formal inquiry into the disaster began at Aberdeen Sheriff Court, Ailsa Wilson, counsel for the Advocate General, said: "Investigations of this sort are not funded at public expense simply to arrive at what some may believe is a foregone conclusion."

It is understood that a joint panel of experts (JPE) – appointed to review the evidence following the discovery of the wreck of the trawler off the Caithness coast eight years ago – concluded that it was a combination of seakeeping, or the characteristics of the vessel, and the prevailing conditions that caused the trawler's "catastrophic" capsize.

Ms Wilson told the court: "Rejection of the conclusions arrived at by the JPE should not be based upon the fact it may represent an inconvenient truth because it is not in accord with the long-held belief on the part of some of the families that a design fault on the part of Mr Cumming was the principal cause of the loss of the Trident."

Ms Wilson also voiced concern in her opening statement that notice had only been intimated since September by counsel for the Trident families that "substantial criticism" was now being levelled against Mr Cumming, the Seafish Industry Authority – whose predecessors, the White Fish Authority, provided a grant and loan for the construction of the vessel – and David Tait, the majority owner of the Trident.

Ms Wilson told Sheriff Principal Sir Stephen Young: "It may become necessary for me, as counsel to the inquiry, to seek an adjournment if the evidence from the families proceeds in an unexpected manner."

She continued: "It is somewhat ironic that the families, who have been most vocal in calling for a reopening of the formal investigation, are themselves putting in jeopardy the timely conclusion of the reopened formal inquiry that they have publicly stated they so eagerly await."

Jeannie Ritchie, 69, the Buchan housewife who lost both her husband and father in the disaster, and who has been leading the campaign for a fresh inquiry, said as she left the court: "If we get the truth and we feel we've got the truth then we will accept it. We feel the truth has been hidden since the first inquiry in 1975."

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Irene Summers-Hall, 74, whose husband was the cook on the ill-fated trawler, said: "I am glad that the inquiry is finally under way. It has been a long, hard eight years since the wreck was found. All we are looking for is the truth about why that boat was lost and the men lost their lives."

The men who died were: Alex Ritchie, 35, who was the boat's co-owner; acting skipper Robert Cordiner, 36; and crewmen George Nicol, 58, Tom Thain, 32, James Tait, 32, Alex Summers, 38, and Alex Mair, 30.

The inquiry continues on 26 October.


• 31 March, 1973: The Trident is delivered to her owners after being built at Middlesbrough by Tees Marine Ltd to the design of Andrew Cumming of the Bute Slip Dock Company, based in Ardmaleish, Bute.

• 3 October, 1974: The Trident disappears without trace while returning to her home port of Peterhead from Troon. All seven crewmen on board are lost.

• August, 1975: A 22-day inquiry, conduced by Sheriff Principal George Gimson, concludes it was probable that the Trident foundered after taking aboard "a sea or succession of seas" and that the "deficient stability" in her design had probably contributed to the loss of the trawler.

• June 2001: The wreck of the 86ft Trident is finally located off the Caithness coast by a team of amateur divers. The divers were searching for the wreck of HMS Exeter, a Second World War destroyer, when they stumbled across the wreck of the trawler, lying virtually intact on the seabed, her hull still painted blue with a white wheelhouse.

• 28 March, 2002: Stephen Byers, the transport secretary, announces that the inquiry into the sinking of the Trident is to be reopened.

• 19 October, 2009: The reopened formal inquiry begins at Aberdeen Sheriff Court.

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