August 2, 2008

Inquiry into Three Killed in Tied-Up Trawler Blaze

By John Ross

Foreign crew members living on board because of visa restrictions

Town in mourning for fishermen

THE communities are on opposite sides of the world but brought together by industry. Yesterday they were united in grief.

A devastating fire on a trawler berthed in Fraserburgh harbour claimed the lives of three crew, believed to be two Filipinos and a Latvian, in the early hours of yesterday. An investigation by police and fire officers was continuing last night into the cause.

Like many fishing communities in Britain, Fraserburgh has recently seen the arrival of dozens of Filipino fishermen.

Yesterday, a meeting of the Filipino fishing community was held in the local fishermen's mission. Afterwards none of the crews wanted to speak of the loss of their friends and colleagues. But Murray Campbell, senior superintendent at the mission, said: "They are really shocked, as we all are. We have all been through a traumatic experience.

"They feel very much for their colleagues and friends and for those who are left back in the Philippines who are now mourning. The people who died were well known locally. We feel for the loss of these fishermen. Everyone here is devastated."

He said the victims will be remembered in weekend church services.

As have other fishing towns, Fraserburgh has become used to losses at sea, but yesterday's tragedy was somehow more poignant as it happened with the boat still in port.

Last night, the bodies of the three crew were removed, 18 hours after they died.

As an investigation continued into how the fierce blaze managed to rip through the Vision II so quickly, trapping the three crew inside, people in the fishing port mourned the foreign workers as if they were their own.

The fire was discovered at 1:36am yesterday by a harbour security guard on his routine patrol who saw flames shooting from the vessel.

He tried to board the 90ft boat but was beaten back by the intensity of the fire, which was said to be above 600C. He had earlier seen three men set off towards the trawler berthed in the town's Balaclava Quay, where it was undergoing a refit, having recently changed hands.

At the height of the blaze about 40 firefighters from four stations were involved, using breathing apparatus and thermal imaging equipment. In all it took more than an hour to bring it under control in conditions described as similar to working in a giant industrial oven.

David Rout, incident commander for Grampian Fire and Rescue, said:

"It was extremely arduous conditions for the firefighters. We had unconfirmed reports that there were people on board and then we heard there were at least two people there. But during search and rescue operations our teams located three fatalities."

Coastguard and local lifeboat crews scoured the waters around the vessel in case anyone else from the boat had jumped overboard, but no-one was found.

Police also boarded the boat to inspect the inside and filmed and photographed the areas where the men were found.

Detective Inspector Martin Dunn said: "We are working to identify the three people and, with the fire brigade, we are working to establish where the fire started and how it started."

Boats continued to go in and out of the harbour yesterday. The Vision II remained tied up and from the outside little damage was noticeable other than the blackened windows of the wheelhouse.

It is thought the seamen had been visiting the town before returning to the boat, which was, in effect, their home during their contract to work out of Fraserburgh.

According to industry sources this is common practice among non- EU fishermen, who work on transit visas which require them to stay on board. One said:

"If you employ non-EU nationals they use transit visas, which means they embark upon a vessel they are going to work on and they stay there. This is normal and natural practice.

"There is no reason why they should not have been sleeping on board, in fact it's what they are supposed to do."

Steve Todd, general secretary of the RMT union, said: "At one time there was a preference for crews to go ashore, but on most vessels nowadays it has become more and more common practice to keep the crew on board."

One local skipper said:

"These days the boats have all the facilities. The electric is hooked up, every boat has Sky TV, its own shower and toilet. They have all the modern comforts.

"Foreign crew members prefer to cook their own meals because they eat differently from us. They prefer to stay on the boat, but they have to anyway.

"They come here usually on eight-month contracts and you can employ them only through an agency or they have to apply for an immigration visa.

"I can't just phone up and ask them to work on my boat, it has to be done through an agency which arranges the visas and everything and it is the agency that pays them."

Politicians and local people joined in describing their sadness at the loss of three adopted members of their community.

Stewart Stevenson, the Banff and Buchan MSP, said: "My thoughts go out to the friends and family of those who died. I am sure the police, the fire and rescue service and the appropriate authorities will look very closely at the circumstances surrounding this and I hope we have a speedy understanding of what caused this tragedy."

Michael Watt, a Fraserburgh councillor and former fisherman, said: "I just think it's really, really sad for the families. There is nowhere to go in such a confined space and the fumes would accumulate so quickly."

The vessel had recently been refitted after changing hands. Westward Fishing Company, agents for the new owners, said last night: "The owners of Vision II are deeply shocked and saddened by the tragic events earlier today. All our thoughts at this time are with the families of those who lost their lives."

Bertie Armstrong, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, said: "This is a terrible tragedy and our sympathies go to the families involved. There will obviously be an investigation and we will see if there are any lessons to be learned."

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