We are now approaching the 50th day of hearings in this second public inquiry into the loss of the trawler Trident and its 7-man crew. The cost of this investigation is also said to be nearing £4m and, according to recent reports in the press, nobody appears to be fully satisfied with the way it is currently heading.
The original 1975 inquiry sat for 10 days, managed to cover a lot of ground and, although the precise cause of the casualty was unascertainable at that time (there was no wreck or eye witness testimony to the event), was eventually able to conclude:
“that inadequate stability is the factor most likely to underlie her foundering in conditions which would not normally have overwhelmed a ship of her size”
Subsequently, at the behest of the Department of Trade, the National Maritime Institute ran a series of tests on a model of the Trident (in the period 1975/6) the results of which added considerable weight to the conclusions of the 1975 public inquiry. Unfortunately, however, the conclusions from these model tests (that Trident had insufficient stability) were neither made public nor passed on to the relatives of the crew, thus denying closure to those who had suffered the greatest loss.
Nothing then happened for 25 years until 2001 when a team of amateur divers, searching for the wreck of HMS Exmouth, came across the Trident’s wreck off the coast of Caithness. In 2002, following an official underwater survey of the wreck site by the MAIB, Stephen Byers, then Secretary of State for Transport, decided to re-open the formal investigation, announcing that important new evidence [*] had been discovered.
With hindsight, it now seems that it was at this point in time when the investigative processes started to go wrong.
Following the discovery of the wreck and the evidence it revealed, investigators should have been in a position to:
i) Endorse the conclusions of the 1975 inquiry and the NMI model tests (i.e. inadequate stability) and thus bring an end to 25 years of uncertainty
ii) Reveal important new evidence from the wreck site, which countered the conclusions of the original inquiry, and advise us of the alternative cause for Trident’s loss.
This process should have taken no more than a few days of the Court’s time, and would have allowed everyone, in a timely manner, to obtain closure and get on with their lives.
Eight years further down the line, it would now seem that, in 2002, the Department for Transport (DfT) decided instead to embark upon a third option:
iii) Overturn the conclusions of both the 1975 inquiry and the 1976 NMI model tests without any new or important evidence
You may ask how they could do this.
Quite simply, really - rewrite history, redefine the applicable technology, add a bit of obfuscation and, in the absence of new and important evidence – make use of statistics and computers to generate some - although obviously this process was to take some time and be rather expensive (8 years and £4m so far……).
So, what have they been doing during these past eight years?
- They formed a investigating team called the Joint Panel of Experts
- Two further underwater surveys of the wreck site were carried out including onsite measurements of the Trident’s hull – possibly to seek out ways to ‘enhance’ the deficient stability reserves that were calculated for Trident in 1975
- Two new computer simulations for the weather were prepared by leading weather experts – to dismiss the assessment of prevailing weather and wave conditions that was given by Dr Draper in 1975 (wind force 5-6) and substitute weather conditions and waves corresponding to winds of force 7-8 instead
- Model testing was carried out in the MARIN test facility in the Netherlands together with computer simulations of model tests - to obtain capsize events on the Trident model with revised weather and sea conditions - to dismiss the 1976 conclusions from the NMI model tests
- A report was drawn up by the Joint Panel of Experts containing technical arguments to justify their new conclusion that ‘sea-keeping’ rather than ‘stability’ was the cause for Trident’s loss.
So what have they been doing during the past 50 days of Court hearings?
- Discussing all of the above and generating more than 8000 pages of unintelligible evidence
Why are they doing this?
- To make sure that the Court concludes that Trident sank for reasons other than deficient stability (with its implicit inference that someone was at fault).
All at taxpayers’ expense.
[*] The Merchant Shipping Act stipulates that if, subsequent to a casualty investigation either “new and important evidence” or a miscarriage of justice is revealed, the Secretary of State for Transport is required to re-open the formal investigation.