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Background to the Erika's sinking
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banner Wednesday, 16 August, 2000, 14:58 GMT 15:58 UK
The scandal of the Erika
The Erika sinks amidst high seas in the Bay of Biscay
At an Athens party for the movers and shakers in world shipping the drinks flow freely. Life is good. But the industry funding this champagne lifestyle is coming under increasing scrutiny following one of Europe's worst environmental disasters.

Correspondent has investigated the sinking of the oil tanker, Erika, off the west coast of France last December and has discovered a murky world where profit rules over safety and blame shifts like the sand on Brittany's beaches.

Map showing where the Erika sank
On December 8th last year the 37,000 ton tanker, the Erika, left Dunkirk and sailed down the Channel bound for Italy with a cargo of heavy fuel oil. Erika was an old vessel reaching the end of her shelf life. As befitted her age she was a "bargain basement charter" working for half the price of a safe modern tanker. The Erika never made her final destination.

As the vessel entered the Bay of Biscay, she ran into a heavy storm. Oil tankers are built to withstand such conditions but the Erika encountered difficulties. The storm worsened and by mid afternoon on December 11th , she started to list to starboard by 10-12 degrees. In mountainous seas the ship's hull was cracking and water was being taken onboard. In the hours that followed Captain Karun Mathur slowly lost control and the vessel began to un-peel like a sardine tin.
boat sinking
The Erika sinking in the Bay of Biscay

'I was just praying to God that we should make it to port and not even believing that we would make it. It was a terrible feeling.'

The next morning the Erika broke in two and started to sink. Thousands of tons of oil leaked from her cargo tanks. As a huge blanket of oil drifted towards Brittany's coastline and the television news images of the first oil-stricken birds were beamed around the world, the inquest began into one of the tanker industry's worst disasters. How could this have happened and who was to blame?

The Erika's background is not impressive. She was one of eight sister ships built over 25 years ago in Japan. They were at the cheaper end of the market, quite safe but light on steel carrying - it has been claimed - some 10% less than many other tankers of a similar size. Apart from the Erika, three of the other sisters have suffered major structural damage.

I was just praying to God that we should make it to port and not even believing that we would make it. It was a terrible feeling

Captain Mathur

Yet, as oil charter fees began to soar with the tightening of tanker safety standards, the Erika and her sisters became popular alternatives to the more expensive vessels. They joined working ships at the cheaper end of the market, acquiring reputations akin to ladies of easy virtue, for being available, at a reasonable price.

Despite the troubled reputation of her sisters, the Erika was allowed to carry on working with only minimum maintenance. Jack Bayram, at one time manager of two of Erika's sister ships, told Correspondent, 'When I saw it was the Erika that had gone, it didn't really come as any great surprise. I thought, she's the same breed as the ships we had and she broke in a similar position.'
Marine and bird life suffered from the huge oil spill

After the sinking, the French investigators set about trying to trace the owner of the Erika. But they became lost in a labyrinthine world of brass plate companies and commercial 'fog' which they describe as 'unacceptable' and 'against the public interest'. The paper trail led through seven different countries.

Such a lack of transparency is designed to limit liability to the one vessel in the event of a tanker disaster. Italian businessman Giuseppe Savarese, having eventually been identified as the owner of the Erika, is now facing criminal charges in France and has a 1 million bail on this head.

But Savarese argues that responsibility for the demise of the Erika lies not with him, but with the 'flag' under which the Erika sailed and RINA, the Italian shipping classification society which surveyed the vessel.

Giuseppe Savarese, the owner of the Erika
'A lot of people behaved in an extremely bad way. I paid RINA to certify my ship. I paid RINA to verify that my ship was in proper condition. They DID verify that my ship was in a proper condition. If, as some people are alleging, there was a structural problem, they should have been able to spot that there was a structural problem. If they give me a clean bill of health on my ship, I am allowed to trade that ship.'

RINA's Roberto Cazzulo concedes they should have known more about the problems with Erika's sister ships when they took her onto their books.

'Yes, really this is a matter of concern that we should have know. Even if the history of the sister vessels is not directly related to the cause of the casualty, it would be extremely important for ourselves, to know that some parts of the vessel had these problems.'

RINA accepts some of the responsibility but also points the finger at the Malta authorities, where the ship was flagged.
Roberto Cazzulo of RINA

Lino Vassallo of the Malta Maritime Authority passes the buck straight back. He insists that whatever went wrong wasn't their fault. 'I don't see all the need of a reference to a Mediterranean rust bucket. This was a vessel which could have operated under any other flag. This was a vessel which is very similar to many other vessels.'

The Maltese says it is the owner and RINA who must shoulder the blame.

'It is a fact,' says Lino Vassallo, 'that a vessel which is nearing the end of its lifetime sometimes might not be fully maintained as it should. I'm not saying that this is the normal case, but yes, there have been cases where because the ship is nearing the end of its lifetime - it's economical lifetime - there is a reluctance to spend more than one needs to as a minimum to keep the vessel maintained in a proper way.'

Lino Vassallo of Malta Maritime Authority
The buck is passed on again.

Ironically, the one man who kept his cool throughout the Erika sinking, Captain Karun Mathur, was the one person initially held responsible and was briefly detained in a French jail. After a week in prison he was released on bail, but his reputation and moral are in tatters. RINA pointed at the young master's lack of experience and implied the ship went down partly through his inaction.

'I was thinking, what kind of system is this?' the Captain told Correspondent at his home port of Bombay, 'What about the other players? For no fault of my own I am being put in prison! I am only operating the ship and I am the one was is jailed. I am not the one who owned the ship. What about the rest?'

Captain Mathur of the Erika
As the buck passing and finger pointing continues, the wreck of the Erika still bleeds oil on the ocean bed. The French oil company Total, who were chartering the tanker on her fateful voyage, are spending 85 million sealing the hull and trying to pump out the rest of the oil still in its tanks.

Meanwhile, the official French investigators now believe the cause of the break-up lies with repairs carried out to the ballast tanks less than two years before she sank. These repairs were surveyed and passed by RINA.

RINA's Roberto Cazzulo told Correspondent, ' I think the blame culture in this respect is not very helpful in order to identify actions for the future. We believe the RINA surveyor made his job in trying to detect any potential problem.

However, we cannot exclude that part of the repairs could have been the cause of some latent defects in the hull. We have done all the best in order to spot these defects, but we cannot exclude that a latent defect could be in that area. '

The oil tanker charter industry argues that the Erika was a one off, but Correspondent discovered another tanker in an even worse condition - and still sailing. Like the Erika, the Nunki was flagged to Malta and surveyed by the Italian classification society, RINA.

Both the Maltese and Italian authorities had passed her as seaworthy, but after docking at Amsterdam earlier this summer, she was impounded by port authority officials. They said the Nunki's condition was so dangerous she couldn't be allowed back to sea under her own steam and would have to be towed to a repair yard. She is now on sale for scrap.

Producer: Guy Smith

Reporter: Tom Mangold

Editor: Fiona Murch

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See also:

06 Jun 00 | Broadband
Bid to rescue Erika's oil
07 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
UK birds hit by French oil spill

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