Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Death Ship Trial Under Way After Many Years

A Scottish trawler owner has gone on trial at a court on the Isle of Man, accused of the manslaughter of seven crewmen who drowned in the Solway Harvester disaster in the Irish Sea five years ago. Richard Gidney, 41, the sole director of Jack Robinson Trawlers, the company which owned the Solway Harvester, is accused of causing the deaths of all seven members of the crew, who perished when the Kirkcudbright-registered scallop dredger sank in heavy seas off the Manx coast on 11 January, 2000, while attempting to head for shelter at Ramsey Bay in the Isle of Man. The disaster, the worst tragedy in the Scottish fishing industry for more than a decade, claimed the lives of two brothers and one of their cousins and completely devastated the tiny fishing hamlets of Garlieston, Whithorn and the Isle of Whithorn in the remote Machars area of the Solway coast. Drowned in the tragedy were The Skipper, Craig Mills, 29, his brother Robin, 33, their cousin David Mills, 18, and Martin Milligan, 26, David Lyons, 17, John Murphy, 22, and Wesley Jolly, 17. Robin Mills, whose wife Karen was pregnant with their second child at the time of the tragedy, stepped in to make up the crew’s full complement after another member of the crew, James Gorman, missed the fateful trip through illness. And Wesley Jolly and David Lyons had left school only shortly before the tragedy. Gidney, from Gatehouse-of-Fleet in Dumfries and Galloway, has denied the seven counts of manslaughter. A jury of nine men and three women was selected yesterday on the opening day of the trial at the Manx courts of justice in Douglas. The prosecution is expected to outline its case to the jury today before the first witness is called tomorrow. The case has been the subject of numerous delays and postponements. Gidney first appeared in court in the Manx capital on manslaughter charges almost three years ago. He is accused of breaching a duty of care, owed to the boat’s crew, by failing to ensure that the vessel was operated in a safe manner and allowing the Solway Harvester to go to sea in an unseaworthy state. The decision to proceed with a criminal prosecution against Gidney was taken by John Corlett, QC, the Attorney General of the Isle of Man, after divers had recovered the bodies of all seven fishermen and the Manx Government funded the £1 million operation to raise the sunken 75 ft dredger from the seabed, 11 miles off the island’s east coast. The boat was raised from the seabed 169 days after the disaster. A crowd of 2,000, many of them weeping, lined the quayside at Ramsey on the Isle of Man as the stricken vessel was eventually towed into the harbour. The massive operation to lift the Solway Harvester, lying 35 metres below the surface of the Irish Sea, allowed the police to carry out a detailed forensic examination of the wreck as part of their investigation into the sinking of the £1 million dredger. An interim report into the tragedy, published in June, 2003, by the British Government’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch claimed that the boat capsized and sank after its fish room flooded and a defective bilge alarm failed to go off. The report said: "Examination of the wreck by the MAIB demonstrated that the Solway Harvester capsized. However, in theory, a vessel like Solway Harvester should have been able to cope comfortably with the seas that night." MAIB investigators also claimed: "The safety management system in Solway Harvester was shown to be inadequate in the condition of the life-rafts and their securing arrangements, the absence of distress flares, a missing ice scuttle cover, a failed main bilge pump and a missing protective cover over the starboard side of the fish room slush well." A full report into the reasons behind the Harvester’s sinking will not be released until after the completion of the criminal proceedings against Gidney. A memorial to the seven crewmen who died - a rock of Galloway granite surmounted by a metal anchor - was dedicated in January of last year at a private ceremony attended by bereaved relatives at Cairn Head, Isle of Whithorn. A claim for damages against Gidney has been launched by the families at the Court of Session in Edinburgh. A total of 127 witnesses have been cited to give evidence at the trial which is expected to last up to eight weeks.
The Solway Harvester reaching Ramsey, Isle of Man, in 2000, after she was lifted from 35 metres under the sea

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