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Thursday, 3 January, 2002, 20:17 GMT
Grounded tanker risk recedes
MV Willy stranded in Cawsand Bay
The tanker struck rocks on Tuesday
Residents evacuated from two Cornish fishing villages when a fuel tanker ran aground have started returning home after experts said the chance of an explosion had receded.

A salvage team boarded the MV Willy on Thursday after it had been pounded by two days of storms since going aground in Cawsand Bay near Plymouth.

The assistance local people have offered to their neighbours has been heartening and admirable

Police spokeswoman
Although the vessel had discharged its cargo there were fears vapour in its tanks could explode.

But following the inspection police reduced the 1,000-metre onshore cordon to 250m, allowing most people to return to their homes in Kingsand and Cawsand, although some had already gone back despite official warnings.

A police spokeswoman thanked the local residents for their "calm assistance and cheerful cooperation" during the incident.

"The assistance local people have offered to their neighbours has been heartening and admirable and the agencies involved in providing food, accommodation and other essential services to displaced residents are all to be commended," she added.

Weather hope

Early planning of the salvage operation has begun and a barge with a heavy crane is expected to arrive from Felixstowe on Friday.

A team from United Salvage Limited was hoping for winds to die down by Saturday, so it could begin removing the remaining 80 tonnes of oil in two of the ship's tanks, which appear to be intact.

Repairs would then have to be made before the Cypriot-registered vessel could be refloated.

Some villagers went home despite safety warnings
Seven of the MV Willy's tanks have been punctured and are filled with water, as is her engine room.

The ship's own fuel tanks appeared to be unharmed, but damage to the hull was more severe than had been thought, and the rudder is missing.

Captain Mark Hoddinott, the salvage manager, said: "We have handled similar situations before.

"Initial indications are that this will not be a quick job in the best of conditions - and there is always a risk of the weather making things more difficult."

The operation is likely to involve filling the ship's ballast tanks with sea water and then attempting to float it clear of the beach.

Andrew Healy, of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, said it would be a "long, slow process".

The vessel hit rocks with a loud bang on Tuesday only moments after it began dragging its anchor.

Evacuation centre

The crew of 12 - nine Filipinos, two Germans and a Croatian - was able to wade ashore.

About 150 people were escorted from their homes after 0500 GMT on Wednesday morning, and taken to an evacuation centre in a village hall.

The bay is in a special conservation area of international importance for a number of species of coastline wildlife.

Phil Collins of English Nature said they had been "lucky so far", but there was still a need to minimise environmental effects of any possible fuel leaks from the ship.

"We are working closely with other agencies to ensure that this rich and diverse area for nature is not damaged," he added.

The BBC's Charles Eden
"Local residents are safe to return home"
CommanderShaunTurner, Plymouth harbour master
"There has been no spill at the moment"

Click here to go to Devon
See also:

03 Jan 02 | England
Experts board grounded ship
02 Jan 02 | England
Stranded ship seals off village
02 Jan 02 | England
Stranded ship threatens homes
31 Oct 01 | England
Warship scuttled for divers
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