Wednesday, March 28, 2007

When history repeats itself

In an article published in Lloyd’s List, almost 13 years ago[1], John Spruyt, was reflecting on the possible winners and losers of another well-known sea tragedy: the sinking of the MV Derbyshire in 1980, which cost the lives of 44 seafarers.
Having read his article, we could not help drawing an analogy between the Derbyshire and the Gaul cases.
We’ve heard it often said that history repeats itself because no one was listening the first time and that a wrong, if not rectified, only increases. Looking back at the unfortunate similarities and differences between the ways in which these accidents have been investigated, these apothegms seem very true, indeed.
In the Derbyshire case, the 1987 formal investigation reached its conclusion “without any factual evidence”, refusing “to take into account earlier research on behalf of the DoT[2] into the possibility of structural failure as the cause of bulker tragedies[3]”, and invoking a force majeure event as the cause for the loss of the vessel and her crew[4].

At the time when John Spruyt’s article was published, the Derbyshire case had not reached its final act, and the re-opening of the formal investigation had not yet taken place.[5]

It was in that context that the author of the article was considering the impact of a re-examination of the case: “[the re-opening of the investigation] would, if it confirmed the frame 65 hypothesis, create a new selection of losers from the [Derbyshire] tragedy”; apart from the primary ones: the victims and their families together with the owners of the vessel and their insurers, a new class of losers could emerge, which could include, we were told, the original formal inquiry team, the secretary of state who convened it and, ultimately, the taxpayer on behalf of the shipbuilders who had been privatised and passed over their liabilities to the government.
The Classification Society who certified the vessel and the ship designers might also get caught in the line of fire, the warning went on. Does this sound familiar?
Unlike the Derbyshire case, however, which was ultimately re-examined, the chance of re-re-opening the Gaul investigation has been, sadly, complicated by the subsequent cover-ups and cover-ups of the cover-ups, which have constantly added new groups and prominent figures to the class of potential losers.
In such circumstances, a re-opening of the Gaul investigation could taint the credentials of some quite reputable organisations and discredit parts of our legal system and of the civil service etc.– institutions once independent, but which are now tied in to the political food chain.

Consequently, very few have an appetite now for pursuing the truth in the Gaul case. If that were to happen, it is feared, it would not only bring to light a previous miscarriage of justice, but it may also unravel a series of other unpalatable facts - some with potentially criminal implications.

Another difference between the Derbyshire case and the Gaul, this time working in favour of the latter, is that the design and arrangement of the duff and offal chutes on the Gaul, which were the most likely cause for the loss of the vessel, can be more definitively categorised as a design defect rather than a mere design weakness, as the design and construction of the hatches on MV Derbyshire was described during the 2000 inquiry.
Thus, while in the Derbyshire case, suing for compensation (after the RFI) might have required some legal mastery on the part of any legal team appointed by the bereaved families, establishing negligence and culpability, in the Gaul tragedy, should be a lot more clear-cut.
Nonetheless, or perhaps for this reason also, there is yet another difference between the two histories: since the publication of John Spruyt’s article, the Derbyshire investigation has been re-opened and has reached a more or less satisfactory conclusion, whereas the Gaul families are still being denied justice.
Bearing all these factors in mind, we fully concur with the author of the article when he argues that: “a few more apparent losers will be worth the lessons to be learned and may, who knows, help to prevent further loss of ships and life.”
We equally agree with the conclusion of the article that the re-opening of a previously failed investigation could serve as a long overdue “time of catharsis in which violent forces do injury to some of the players, so that reconciliation can pave the way to a benign end” that, we would add, could then allow trust in the roles and effectiveness of the ‘system’ to be rebuilt.
And thus, let us hope, justice to the families of the Gaul victims would be finally delivered, helping them to forgive and forget.
(For more comments on the 2004 Gaul RFI please see the FULL TECHNICAL REPORT)

[1] Winners and losers in the five-act ‘Derbyshire’ tragedy, Lloyd’s List, September 26, 1994
[2] Department of Transport
[3] Comment attributed to the ITF (International Transport Federation)
[4] Later on, the accident assessors stated that the loss of MV Derbyshire had been caused by crew negligence leading to structural failure, but the 2000 RFI eventually absolved the crew of any responsibility by concluding that the ship had sunk due to structural failure and as a result of inadequacies in the legislation in force at the time of build.
[5] We wish to emphasize that the parallel we are drawing here is between the 1987 Derbyshire FI and the 2004 Gaul RFI. The Derbyshire investigation was eventually re-opened in April 2000.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


On the rare occasions when we managed to get a reaction from them, the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch claimed, hand on heart, that their investigators role in the Gaul RFI had been limited to the mere provision of the underwater survey video footage and technical drawings. The MAIB did nothing more than “act as agents” “leaving the retained experts in the formal investigation to draw their own conclusions” as to the causes of the accident. This version of events was also backed by Dr Stephen Ladyman, the Transport Minister, in his response to a parliamentary question.
However, Para 3 of the Experts’ Protocol in the Gaul Re-Opened Formal Investigation, which was drawn up in October 2002 and annexed to the 2004 RFI final report, states a rather different thing: “A list of all possible scenarios has previously been drawn up by MAIB in consultation with the families’ experts which should form the basis for further work.” This somehow appears to contradict the MAIB’s non-interference claims.
Anxious to solve this inconsistency, we have requested both the MAIB and the Department for Transport that a copy of this list be made available to us. In reply to our request, the MAIB sent us this email. From DfT we haven’t heard anything yet – nothing, except the sound of steps scurrying away from the torchlight.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Fraud Act
(Crown copyright)
Selections from the contents of the FRAUD ACT can be viewed on THIS PAGE.
"It's increasingly difficult to get straight answers to straight questions" Sandra Gidley

On 11 February 2007, we asked our local MP (Mrs Sandra Gidley) to make two requests for information via the Parliamentary procedure.These requests were to enable us to obtain two documents, held by the government, which would have shed further light on the procedural aspects of the Gaul Formal Investigation.
In the next few days, we will also reveal what these interesting documents are about.
During our last meeting with our MP, on 10 March 2007, we learned, however, that these requests could not be addressed via the Parliament, but by means of a future letter from Mrs Gidley to the Department for Transport – a course of action, which, she believed, would be easier and more appropriate.
OK! Let’s hope that it works, though I have a feeling that it may not.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

2002 Underwater Survey

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

'Secret Agents'

In 2002 the MAIB carried out an underwater survey of the wreck of the Gaul and produced over 3,000 hours of high quality video footage.
The survey vessel used, MPSV Seisranger, was equipped with nine Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs), including several mini-ROVs. The cost for this operation, as the Transport minister advised, amounted to about £3 million.

During the 2004 Re-opened Formal Investigation parts of this video footage were examined by the retained experts and a few selections from this material were afterwards attached to the RFI final report as evidentiary material and placed in the public domain – the coverage of the duff and offal chutes themselves, the very cause of the sinking, representing only a minuscule part of these selections (approx. 64 seconds).

Wishing to obtain some of the missing sections in digital format, so we can publish them more easily, we asked the MAIB to release parts of the footage that were not in the public domain.
In reply to our request, the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents sent us the following statement:

“MAIB was only acting as an agent in the 2002 Gaul survey, so does not hold any copy of the videos taken.

I am sorry that we cannot assist further”

So, then, the MAIB were acting as agents in the Gaul formal Investigation.

What kind of agents would that be?