Heroic Cork crew who answered SOS to avert environmental disaster

25 years ago, a giant oil tanker ran aground off Wales and a Cork tugboat crew were called in to help the rescue operation. TREVOR LAFFAN recalls the dramatic events
Heroic Cork crew who answered SOS to avert environmental disaster

RESCUE MISSION: The crew of the Eskgarth tugboat in 1996, Tony Mulcahy, Arthur (Buddy) Stoat, Brian Espey, Joe Keane, George Wallace, Billy Leahy

WHATS the connection between a Cork tugboat, one of Britain’s worst environmental disaster, and a daring helicopter rescue at sea? Read on to find out.

Back in February, 1996, an oil tanker ran aground off the Welsh coast and spilled 72,000 tons of crude oil along the Pembrokeshire coastline in South Wales.

It’s difficult to visualise that amount of oil, but it would go down in history as one of Britain’s worst environmental disasters. The Sea Empress was a super-tanker, loaded with more than 130,000 tonnes of crude oil when it hit rocks in the middle of the channel.

Local tugs from Milford Haven Port Authority were sent to the scene and attempted to pull the vessel free and to re-float her, but they soon realised the job was too big. Several rescue attempts were made, but each time the ship broke free of the tow ropes and grounded repeatedly, which caused further damage to the hull and allowed more oil to escape.

ENVIRONMENTAL CATASTROPHE: The stricken oil tanker Sea Empress leaking oil into the area off St Ann’s Head, Milford Haven, in 1996, and surrounded by tugboats
ENVIRONMENTAL CATASTROPHE: The stricken oil tanker Sea Empress leaking oil into the area off St Ann’s Head, Milford Haven, in 1996, and surrounded by tugboats

The authorities needed more help, so a full-scale emergency plan was activated. Thirteen tugs in all went to the aid of the Sea Empress and over the following few days they battled night and day to stabilise the stricken tanker. 

One of those tugs, the Eskgarth, skippered by Tony Mulcahy, answered the call and travelled from Cork to lend a hand.

Tony was then 56, and a highly qualified tug master with Irish Tugs limited, based in Cobh. He had 32 years’ sea-going experience behind him and his vessel , the Eskgarth, was considered the biggest harbour tug in both Britain and Ireland at the time.

He remembers being at home on the morning of February 16, 1996, watching Sky news while preparing to go to work. He heard a large tanker had run aground the previous evening, just outside the port of Milford Haven.

When he got to work at 10am, he tuned the radio to BBC to follow developments. He had a feeling that Irish Tugs Ltd would be asked to release a Cork tug to help and if that happened, in all probability, the Eskgarth would be the vessel to go. In anticipation of the call, Tony headed for the jetty at the Whitegate Oil Refinery and topped up with fuel and fresh water, just in case.

At 8pm that evening, he got the call he was expecting and immediately headed for Wales with his five crew mates, Joe Keane, George Wallace, Buddy Stoat, Billy Leahy and Brian Espey — all experienced seamen.

Twelve hours later, they entered the port, and saw the destruction for themselves as they passed close to the Sea Empress with the four Milford Haven tugs alongside her.

The Cobh tug was initially put to work unberthing and berthing ships in the port to free up the local tugs to deal with the tanker, but their orders soon changed, and they were assigned to help with the salvage of the Sea Empress. 

That was the beginning of what they would later describe as the most frightening experience any of them had been through.

There was a pilot on board the Sea Empress who was directing operations from the tanker and communicating with all the tugs and ships in the area by VHF radio. By now, many tugs had towlines connected to the tanker at various points and Tony was requested to attach his. He reversed the tug to the bow of the tanker, which was already underwater, and the crew paddled waist deep in water to accept the towline.

With so many tugs involved, it was difficult for the pilot to remember all the names, or indeed where each tug was attached to the ship, so he designated each tug a number. He called all the tugs and told them his plan was to try and pull the Sea Empress off the rocks, turn her around and take her out to sea.

Tony thought that was a good idea given that the weather was due to deteriorate, he felt taking her ten miles out to sea would give them some room to manoeuvre if anything happened. They could also ride out the storm in safety.

The tanker was currently facing into the harbour, so they had to turn her 180 degrees to point her in the opposite direction, but they had to re-float her first.

All the tugs were working in unison, either pushing or pulling at maximum power to try and move the tanker, and after about two hours, the pilot detected some movement. Shortly after, she was afloat and under command of the pilot while being controlled by the tugs.

About a mile outside the harbour, the pilot asked all tugs to stop as he was going to drop anchor. Tony wasn’t expecting that and at first thought he had misunderstood the order. The initial information from the pilot was that they were going out to sea, so he radioed him to see if he had misunderstood. The pilot repeated the order and told him that he had been instructed to drop anchor and not to take the tanker further out to sea.

They now had a disabled tanker, loaded with more than 130,000 tons of crude oil, in a very dodgy position. Shortly after she anchored, the rest of the tugs released their tow lines. Tony was under the impression that all the tugs would be dismissed, and they would return to Milford, but the pilot called and told him they were to stay in their position for the night.

STRICKEN: The Norwegian tanker Sea Empress off St Ann’s Head, Milford Haven, in 1996, where it ran aground, causing huge pollution along the Welsh coast
STRICKEN: The Norwegian tanker Sea Empress off St Ann’s Head, Milford Haven, in 1996, where it ran aground, causing huge pollution along the Welsh coast

That left only two tugs still attached to the tanker and Tony was concerned because the weather was deteriorating, and the forecast was bad. He still believed that, with such a bad forecast and a damaged ship perilously near the coast, this was the time to heave the anchor and head to sea to ride out the gale. But it wasn’t his call.

The storm blew and things were getting hairy on the tug. They were being battered from the wind and the waves. The guys who were supposed to be resting suddenly appeared from their bunks. They couldn’t sleep with the noise and, because the tug was rolling so heavily, it was threatening to throw them from their bunks. The heat in the accommodation area was almost unbearable as the engine had been going continuously since they left Cork. It was like an oven down there.

Sleep was the least of their worries now though because the tanker suddenly started to move again. 

Tony was worried. He didn’t think two tugs would be strong enough to hold a super tanker against the powerful waves.

They were already under pressure and very close to one of the channel buoys with its flashing red lights. The tug was rolling through an arc of close to 80 degrees and Tony had to jam himself between the control consul and the side of the wheelhouse. George Wallace had control of the towing winch and he was jammed in a similar position.

Tony struggled with the controls to maintain his position as best as he could, but he soon realised that the Sea Empress had dragged her anchor and had gone aground again. That presented a dangerous situation because they didn’t know exactly where the cable from the anchor was and it could seriously damage their rudder or propeller if they hit it. If that happened, the chance of any of them being rescued was slim.

They battled on through the night and at about 4.30am, Tony recalls hearing the most astonishing statement he had ever heard in his entire sea-going career. The pilot advised him; “This vessel we believe is about to blow up. We have ordered helicopters to evacuate the ship, but we want you to stay here.”

While considering their options, the decision was made for them because the rope snapped. They could have left then but they agreed that, as the weather was so bad, they would stay close by in case the helicopters needed assistance.

Two Sea King helicopters arrived on the scene to remove the crew from the tanker in treacherous conditions.

 Large waves were hitting the bow of the tanker and travelling all the way down the deck and smashing against the accommodation housing. As the waves hit the base of the structure, the force of the water rose upward towards the bridge and exploded into spray.

Tony was full of praise for the skill of the helicopter crews that night and described the rescue as truly astonishing.

The tug was rising and falling and rolling as the waves hit them, and he watched as the first helicopter tried to hover over the deck just clear of the waves and as close to the house of the ship as he dared to go. The second helicopter hovered above and behind the first one and they were rocking from side to side in the gale force winds and bobbing up and down like boats in a big swell.

The first helicopter lowered a winch man to the ship, which was now powerless and in complete darkness, so they only had the use of the helicopter floodlights. As the water cleared the deck between waves, the man on the winch would indicate to one of the men to be rescued to run to him. He would then grab the guy and strap him to himself and lift him to safety.

They repeated that process until every member of the crew was rescued.

With the tanker grounded again and the crew all safe, the Eskgarth headed back to port, and dropped anchor to get a few hours’ well-earned sleep.

Later that morning, one of the Welsh tugs pulled up beside them and gave them some newspapers. It was only then they found out that the media people covering the story had been removed from the area during the night.

Every house within two miles of St Anne’s Head had been evacuated as the authorities became aware that the ship was in danger of exploding. 

That blast could have potentially wiped out a large section of the local population.

Tony and his crew were under the impression they were finished and ready to return home to Cork, so they were surprised when they got new orders. A Chinese tug had arrived to help with the salvage and was attached to the bow of the Sea Empress. It got itself into trouble and needed assistance because her towline was fouled. The storm was still raging when the Eskgarth left the harbour to return to the scene.

George Wallace told me: “We got an unmerciful battering that night and it was worse the second time when we went out to help the Chinese tug.”

When they got there, everything went dark, and it wasn’t until Joe Keane opened the wheelhouse door and nearly broke his neck that they discovered the reason. The oil that was leaking from the tanker was being whipped up on the waves and had blackened the windows. The tug was completely covered in crude oil.

They eventually sorted out the Chinese tug and headed back to the safety of Milford Haven, where they threw out the anchor and waited for a space to berth in the busy harbour.

While they were waiting, they received radio messages congratulating and thanking them for a job well done. They were exhausted by now and at 4am they finally tied up at the dockside and went to bed, physically and mentally drained. They had been working continuously for more than 50 hours since leaving Cobh.

Monday and Tuesday were idle days for the lads and on Wednesday they got orders to proceed to the Sea Empress once more. As they got near her and saw the amount of oil on top of the waves, they realised that she had lost a lot of her cargo.

This was the first time since the previous Saturday afternoon that they had seen her in daylight. The task now was to get the tanker re-floated and taken to a secure berth.T

Thirteen tugs in all were attached to the Sea Empress and shortly after they started towing, she moved and was brought into Milford Haven to an abandoned jetty of a defunct refinery.

Their job was done but there was to be no rest. Back in Cork, a large tanker was due to berth in Whitegate Refinery at 2am the following morning and they needed to be there for that job, so they had to leave straight away.

Tony paid a special tribute to his five shipmates and said if he had to hand pick a crew, he couldn’t have picked a better bunch of lads.

In January, 1999, Milford Haven Port Authority (MHPA) was fined a record £4million after pleading guilty to the offence of causing pollution under the Water Resources Act 1991. The MHPA was also required to pay a further £825,000 prosecution costs by agreement.

The cost of the clean-up operation was estimated to be £60m. When the effects to the economy and environment are taken into account, the final cost is estimated to have been twice that, at £120m.

An official report blamed pilot error for the tanker’s initial grounding, and said that other factors such as bad weather, and a lack of understanding of the tidal currents were also at play.

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