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The BBC's Tom Heap
"The Attorney General cast doubt on the theory of crew error"
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Wednesday, 5 April, 2000, 16:48 GMT 17:48 UK
Derbyshire tragedy 'may remain mystery'
John Prescott: Ordered new inquiry into sinking
The sinking of the biggest British ship ever lost at sea may remain a mystery, the opening day of a major inquiry into the tragedy was told.

The Attorney General, Lord Williams, said there would never be "absolute certainty" as to why the bulk carrier Derbyshire sank in 1980 during a typhoon in the South China Sea, with the loss of all 44 people board.

"This is still a casualty without an eyewitness. Those who were on board the Derbyshire were the only persons in a position to know what happened, and all of them have perished with the ship," Lord Williams told the inquiry at the High Court in London.

The inquiry, the second into the loss of the Derbyshire, was ordered by the government after a long campaign by the relatives of those who died.

This is still a casualty without an eyewitness. Those who were on board the Derbyshire were the only persons in a position to know what happened, and all of them have perished

Attorney General Lord Williams

They formed the Derbyshire Families Association to try to prove their belief that the vessel suffered catastrophic structural failure, rather than being "overcome by the forces of nature," as the first inquiry decided had probably happened.

The families' long campaign was praised by the Attorney General as he delivered his opening address.

Lord Williams said their persistence and fortitude had helped establish the inquiry, and everyone in court should feel a "sense of humility" over the campaign's actions.

The association's lawyer, Andrew Moran QC, said the relatives wanted to identify all the defects which had led to such an "appalling" loss of life.

"Lessons may be learned from the examination of all the evidence to prevent any other family having forced upon them the disaster of losing a loved one at sea in similar circumstances," said Mr Moran.

Water flooded the bow area, assessors explained, causing ship to sit lower ...

The judge in charge of the inquiry, Mr Justice Colman, has been given the task of trying to determine why the tragedy happened, and what implications it has for safety at sea.

Controversy has surrounded previous attempts to find out what caused the Derbyshire to sink.

It was only after a sister ship, the Kowloon Bridge, went aground and broke up off Ireland in 1986 that the first public inquiry into the Derbyshire accident started in 1987.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott ordered the new inquiry after a 2m government-funded expedition examined the wreck of the Derbyshire on the seabed.

... the hatch covers ripped off, cargo area filled with water and the ship sank in minutes
From 200 hours of video and more than 130,000 photographs, investigators discovered what they believe caused the ship to go down.

Assessors believe a forehatch lost its cover and the bow hold began to fill. Eventually, they believe, the pressure of water inside the hold led to a series of explosions and implosions which ripped through the ship's interior.

She sank in two minutes. The crew did not even have time to issue a distress call.

The inquiry, expected to last until June, will also hear from the ship's owners, Bibby Line, and the builders, Swan Hunter.

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