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Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2007, 11:51 GMT
Horrors of sea rescue revealed
Royal Navy helicopter rescues Napoli crew. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
The helicopters had to hover in gale-force winds
Royal Navy rescuers who saved 26 men from a life-raft after they abandoned their ship have described the conditions they endured as horrific.

Crewmembers from the MSC Napoli were rescued by helicopters from RNAS Culdrose after the ship was holed in storms 50 miles (80km) off Cornwall.

Giant waves rose higher than the helicopters as wind and spray lashed the rescuers and the sailors.

One helicopter broke two lines trying to get a winch line to the raft.

The seamen were suffering extreme seasickness and hypothermia by the time they were hauled to safety.

They had only been there for a few hours, but they were in quite a bad way
Petty Officer Jay O'Donnell

The container ship was en-route when it sent out a distress call at about 1030 GMT on Thursday.

When they arrived on scene, the helicopter crews knew they were in for a tough operation.

The sailors were brought onto the aircraft individually after a diver, Petty Officer Jay O'Donnell, was lowered to the raft.

PO O'Donnell, 33, from Camborne, said: "The conditions were quite horrific when we got on scene.

"The life-raft was really rolling; and we had low visibility, low clouds and it was very stormy.

"The first aircraft broke two lines trying to get communications with the raft.

"The second aircraft got me down to it in the water in full diving kit.

"I got on board to assess the situation and check casualties."

Rescued Napoli crew - Picture: PA
The rescued crewmembers were taken back to RNAS Culdrose
He then spent 90 minutes securing each of the crewmen to a line so they could be winched to the helicopters.

He said: "They had only been there for a few hours, but they were in quite a bad way.

"They were quite shocked and suffering from hypothermia, extreme vomiting and sea-sickness."

The crew included two British cadets, plus seamen from Bulgaria, Ukraine, Turkey, India and the Philippines.

Despite the life-raft being able to hold 32 people, the freighter's crew said they still endured cramped conditions.

British deck cadet Nicholas Colbourn, 20, from the Scottish Highlands, said: "There was not much space at all, no leg room and we were cramped like sardines.

"The conditions were quite actually hot in there because we all had immersion suits on. It was pretty awkward and not very nice."

MSC Napoli - Picture: AFP/Getty Images
The Napoli was en-route to Portugal with 2,400 containers on board

Helicopter commanding officer Lt Chuck Norris said the continuing storm also hampered the rescue.

He said: "We were hovering 40 to 60 feet throughout it and some of the waves were actually coming above the helicopter.

"So we were going up and down with the waves and, unfortunately, occasionally the life-raft would go down while the helicopter was going up, making the winching extremely difficult. It was very, very rough."

The vessel is now under tow. British and French authorities are debating where the ship should be taken to.


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