00:00 Saturday 03 December 2011  Written by Rory Jackson

25th anniversary of Europes biggest wreck Kowloon Bridge

LIVING on the coast overlooking the rocks where the Kowloon Bridge became wrecked and finally sunk, I was able to witness first hand events as they unfolded. To see a ship nearly the length of Merchants' Quay in Cork city, out of control, with all its lights blazing, and no one on board, powering its way through that stormy night was an unforgettable experience.

The Hong Kong-registered Kowloon Bridge, a 264-metre oil-bulk-ore carrier loaded with 160,000 tonnes of iron ore pellets, was on route from Canada to Scotland, when she got into difficulties during a stormy Atlantic crossing.

On November 18th the ship sought safety and pulled into Bantry Bay. Another ship also took refuge in the deep waters of the bay at this time, the storm-damaged oil tanker the Cappo Emma, which had to transfer its 80,000 tonnes of crude oil to another tanker.

The state marine surveyor together with the owners' representative from Lloyd's boarded the Kowloon Bridge and inspected her for seaworthiness. All the various officials agreed that the ship needed to undergo repairs before it went out to sea again.

The authorities were under the impression that Captain ST Rao wanted to have the emergency repairs carried out at Bantry, as he also seemed to believe his ship was unseaworthy.

Arrangements were being made to effect these repairs when, during the morning of 22nd, the Kowloon Bridge lost her main anchor and Captain Rao decided to head back out to open sea. Despite the ship being in Bantry Bay the authorities had no power or authority to prevent her from leaving.

By nightfall the vessel was some 10 miles southwest of Mizen Head when she lost her steering altogether, was in serious trouble, and a Mayday call was issued. In storm-force conditions, the 28-strong crew, including the Lloyd's surveyor, who had stayed with the vessel, were successfully airlifted by an RAF rescue helicopter crew.

Abandoned ship

The ship was effectively abandoned with her engine running and left to power its way out into the Atlantic and head anywhere just so as it was away from the Irish coast.

A tugboat based in Galway tried to reach the stricken vessel and attempt a salvage operation, but it too sustained storm damage and returned to port with its wheelhouse windows blown in.

Ultimately the storm turned the Kowloon Bridge around and, just like in a disaster film, this mammoth vessel started making its way back towards the Irish coast. And there was nothing anyone would do to stop it!

The Navy vessel LE Aiofe was monitoring the abandoned ship's movements but was not allowed to board and take diverting action.

Eventually the Kowloon Bridge ran aground on Monday November 24th, off 'The Stags', an outcrop of rocks just off Toe Head, near Castletownsend.

The incident became front-page news not just locally and nationally, but internationally.

In the week following, efforts were made to salvage the vessel and tow her off the rocks. The poor weather conditions continued; however, this did not prevent huge numbers of sightseers from descending on the area to view the catastrophic events.

For miles around Toe Head and Tragumna, the little one-track country roads were jammed, so much so that eventually people abandoned their vehicles altogether and walked to the coast with their binoculars and cameras and sandwiches.

The government by this time issued a stern directive to the owners of the vessel to remove the ship's 2,000 tons of bunker oil lest it ruin the coastline, but weather conditions on the one hand, and disputes about proper authority and procedure and property rights on the other, hampered efforts to comply with this order, and the ship finally sank on December 3rd.

Walked away

Hard as it may be to believe, with a vessel caught on the rocks, and with 2,000 tonnes of fuel (thick black bunker oil) leaking out of her, the owners, Helinger Limited, at this time sold the ship, and, despite pathetic bluster from the Irish government, walked clean away from the whole mess!

Copy Logic, an outfit run by East London scrap dealer, Mr Shaun Kent, bought the Kowloon Bridge for £1, thereby taking on all responsibility for the wreck (previous to this, the Kowloon Bridge had been valued at £8.4 million, and its cargo was worth £2.7 million).

After she sank the oil began to leak out more actively as the ship broke up. With oil washing up on local beaches and an oil slick spreading for many miles along the coast, the full extent of the environmental damage soon became horribly apparent.

The herring season was coming to a close and many boats were forced to destroy their catches as the fish was contaminated with oil when brought aboard. (The Stags has been a notable herring fishery for centuries.) Other wildlife was also affected, birds coming ashore amid the oil on every beach along the coastline.

Environmental groups and local people were very concerned with the feebleness of the authorities from start to close. There was a strong media presence in Ireland for the general election in progress at this time, bringing a good deal of focus on to the poor handling of the incident.

Oil can still be found today along the coastline near to where the ship sank, and though the marine environment recovers well, the threat of another disaster is, of course, ever present. The legal framework still allows shipping companies easy get-outs from their responsibilities.

Twenty-five years on, the lessons of the Kowloon Bridge, it seems, have still yet to be learned.

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