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Sunday, March 21, 1999 Published at 09:17 GMT


Tanker coastguards criticise Prescott

The ship has now been towed to safety and the fire is out

Coastguards involved in the operation to rescue a stricken tanker off the north coast of Scotland have criticised Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.

The BBC's Jon Brain: "John Prescott singled out the Pentland Coastguard"
Their union says he paid tribute to them while at the same time considering closing the station.

Pentland Coastguard at Kirkwall in Orkney helped save the blazing vessel, Mutlitank Ascania, which was loaded with thousands of tonnes of chemicals.

[ image:
"Magnificent" rescue operation, according to Mr Prescott
Mr Prescott singled the coastguard out and described their search and rescue work as "magnificent".

All 14 Fijian crew members and the tanker's German skipper were winched to safety by an RAF helicopter in a rescue operation co-ordinated by Pentland.

The station is one of four around the country listed for closure within the next three years under controversial plans from the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

This reorganisation of maritime rescue services has been condemned by a committee of MPs.

A spokeswoman for the coastguards' union said she welcomed Mr Prescott's words of praise.

But she hoped he would take time to reflect before making a final decision on Pentland and the three other stations.

Inspection continues

At the scene of the rescue itself, seven people were on board the tanker, including salvage experts and members of a chemical strike force.

They were due to begin a detailed survey of the ship on Sunday morning after.

On Saturday the Cyprus-registered tanker and its cargo of potentially explosive vinyl acetate was towed to safety at Scapa Flow.

A helicopter lowered two men on to the decks of the stricken vessel to make sure the fire on board had burned itself out.

Residents return

The men used hand-held thermal imaging equipment to check "hot spots" at the rear of the tanker.

Before that, marine emergency experts and transport minister Dr John Reid flew over the ship on a coastguard helicopter.

Up to 200 residents were then allowed to return to their homes near Dunnet Head and police in Caithness lifted the state of emergency.

The villagers had been moved away because of the risk of explosion as the vessel drifted at sea.

There was also a fear for marine life and around 60,000 sea birds.

Meanwhile, a lifeboat crew member who was injured in the rescue was said to be comfortable at Raigmore Hospital, Inverness. All the ship's crew have now left hospital.

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