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.

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