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Last Updated: Friday, 24 March 2006, 12:00 GMT
Rescuers 'dealing with unknown'
By Martin Hamer
BBC News, North West

Rescue co-ordination centre manager, Sue Todd
Sue Todd said more people were drafted in as the night wore on
Hundreds of people from a wide range of organisations were involved in the attempted rescue of cocklers during the Morecambe Bay disaster.

Coastguards, lifeboat crews, and police and military helicopter personnel were among those called into action on the ill-fated February night in 2004 when at least 21 cocklers drowned.

The woman responsible for co-ordinating the rescue effort described it as the biggest operation of its kind in the North West.

Sue Todd, manager of the region's coastguard centre at Crosby in Merseyside, was the on-call officer and was alerted about an hour after the alarm was raised.

She said rescuers were dealing with the unknown.

"We had no idea during the co-ordination of the search and rescue of the extent of what was happening and in fact we didn't know the extent until a few days later when we had confirmation of the numbers that were likely to be involved," she said.

The control room at HM Coastguard in Crosby
Twenty-one watchkeepers work at the MRCC in Merseyside

"There were so many conflicting reports of whether it was as few as 13 or as many as 70 or 80 people, so it was a case of saturating the area with as many search and rescue resources as we could get in there safely.

"It was a pretty difficult incident - frustration is the word.

"Normally, you have either got a vessel's name that you are looking for or you know how many people you are looking for, and the difficult bit is finding them. On this occasion, we didn't have either.

"It was obvious that if there were people out there, time was of the essence because there was very little time left before the full flood tide.

"As a result, everything was thrown at it. Helicopters were tasked, first a police one and then military ones, then our own rescue teams and RNLI assets."

The Crosby base is one of 19 Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCC) around the UK.

Morecambe coastguard Eric Greenough
Coastguard Eric Greenough said it was a 'bitterly cold night'

About 40 people work at the Merseyside centre, including 21 watchkeepers.

Scottish-born Ms Todd, 32, said: "The watch manager on duty makes all the decisions - they take all the initial call details, they look at what is required, look at the weather conditions, the state of the tide.

"They look at what resources are available and they decide who goes and what they do once they are there.

"Morecambe Bay is a big area of water and so it's quite difficult to allocate resources."

Morecambe coastguard Eric Greenough said he realised the enormity of the rescue effort when he knew military helicopters were involved.

"There were two dedicated RAF search and rescue helicopters and a police one," he said.

"The helicopters had thermal imaging that can detect heat, but one of the problems was that the bodies were very cold.

The Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre at Crosby
The rescue effort was co-ordinated by HM Coastguard in Crosby

"It was a bitterly cold night. If you had taken your clothes off and hit cold water, hypothermia would set in at no time at all."

Ms Todd said more people were drafted in as the night wore on.

"In the main, the volume of people in the search increased during the night because we also pulled in people like mountain rescue teams and local fishermen," she said.

"Three helicopters worked throughout the night, 100 coastguard personnel, all the RNLI crews and the police control room - about a couple of hundred. It was a very resource-intensive incident.

"Part of my job during the night was to take the weight of the media calls and act as a local spokesperson.

"It's probably the biggest incident we have handled here in Crosby and nationally it's certainly one of the biggest of that type."

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