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Last Updated: Friday, 8 October, 2004, 04:39 GMT 05:39 UK
Decades-long riddle of trawler tragedy
By Marie Jackson
BBC News Online

The Gaul
The Gaul sank off the Norwegian coast in 1974 with 36 men aboard
When a state-of-the-art fishing trawler sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea on 8 February 1974, it took with it the lives of 36 crewmen and a mystery that has still to be unravelled 30 years on.

No-one knows definitively why the Hull-registered Gaul sank in one of the UK's worst fishing tragedies but there has been no shortage of theories.

Some say the Soviet Union torpedoed the vessel because it suspected it was being used for spying, others back a less sinister version of events in which heavy seas battered the Gaul, causing it to founder.

And now the inquiry into the disaster is to hear evidence suggesting a British submarine became caught in its fishing nets and dragged the trawler underwater.

'Crew imprisoned'

A public inquiry at the time concluded the 18-month-old ship had sunk, without raising a Mayday signal, after being battered by heavy seas.

But rumours abounded with some famillies believing the ship had been captured by the Soviet Union and crew members imprisoned.

The tragedy has taken precedence over a lot of things in my life - had we known what had happened earlier, we could have grieved and got over it
Beryl Betts, sister of factory hand Billy Jones

The families, unconvinced by official findings, united as the Gaul Families' Association to call on the government to carry out another investigation.

But it was 1997 before there was a significant breakthrough. An expedition funded by UK and Norwegian television companies found the Gaul on the seabed off the Norwegian coast.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott subsequently launched an inquiry in 1999 after a survey of the wreck brought new evidence to light.

It appeared two hatches and a door had been open when the ship sank, according to the UK Government survey.

Gaul wheelhouse
An underwater camera reveals the wheelhouse of the sunken Gaul

But a year later the government was lambasted in an official report by a former Department of Transport shipping policy chief for failing to search for the wreck of the Gaul before 1997.

The report by Roger Clarke found there was "no calculation" within the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Transport, and said cost considerations and uncertainty about where to look were the main reasons why no search was made.

It also concluded that government records on the Gaul were prematurely destroyed or overlooked.

Remains identified

A further breakthrough came in 2002 when the remains of four men were raised from the wreck and DNA was matched to crew members James Wales, Maurice Spurgeon, Stanley Collier and Clifford Briggs.

This brought comfort to some relatives but left others wondering where their loved ones were.

At the start of the latest inquiry in January, Attorney General Lord Goldsmith threw out any claims of espionage.

Both an intelligence officer and former first-mate testified there was no spying on the ship, only fishing.

Lord Goldsmith had earlier said the MoD ran a scheme in Hull in which naval commanders liaised with trawler skippers in the 1960s, and other trawlers had been involved in recovering lost missiles in the Barents Sea in 1972 and 1973. These activities though were over by 1974, he said.

Derek Barron, ex-chief petty officer
Derek Barron claims a submarine may have been responsible for the Gaul sinking
Findings from this latest inquiry will not be available until later this year following a hearing on Friday when Derek Barron, an ex-chief petty officer will give evidence to the Wreck Commissioner.

He claims to have overheard a conversation in a naval mess in 1983 suggesting a submarine may have come into contact with the Gaul.

For the families of the 36 lost men, the investigations, inquiries, claims and counter-claims over the past 30 years, have, in most cases, taken over their lives.

'Tragedy has taken over'

Beryl Betts's brother Billy Jones was a 26-year-old factory hand on board the Gaul when it went down.

She told BBC News Online: "We had just lost my dad and Billy wanted to take my younger brother and sister to Spain to help them get over the trauma so he was trying to save up some money.

"It was my older brother who told me that Billy was missing," she said.

"The tragedy has taken precedence over a lot of things in my life that it shouldn't have done. Had we known what had happened earlier, we could have grieved and got over it," she added.

Mrs Betts said she is like the majority of crewmen's relatives who are not able to accept the offical findings that the trawler foundered in heavy seas and is convinced a submarine was involved in some way.

Solicitor for 34 of the 36 crew members, Barry Tindall of Max Gold Partnership, said most families hoped Friday's hearing would bring the events of the past 30 years to a conclusion.

Maybe then the mystery will finally be laid to rest.

Underwater footage of the Gaul wreckage

Writer defiant over Gaul source
11 May 04 |  Humber
Gaul sinking inquiry ends
27 Feb 04 |  Humber

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