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Friday, 11 February, 2000, 06:36 GMT
'Had I hit the right tone?'

Floral tribute The funerals of the crew marked a watershed for the communities

BBC Scotland's reporter in south-west Scotland, Willie Johnston, covered the entire Solway Harvester story. These are his memories.

"We said we'd get them back and we will." In the bar of a seafront hotel in the Isle of Man's capital, Douglas, the Manx police chief detailed to lead the Solway Harvester inquiry was briefing the assembled media.

He was tired, so were we. It was very late at night after another long and frustrating day.

Bad weather and technical problems had again delayed attempts to salvage the Solway Harvester and recover the bodies of her crew.

Hopes and expectations

That day, 30 of the fishermen┐s' grieving relatives had arrived on the island and the chief inspector had come from their hotel to ours. He knew their hopes and expectations.

He also knew time was running out, but the promise had been made and the Manx authorities remained unflinching in their determination to carry it through.

Out of the hotel window, on the far horizon, twinkled the lights of a ship. On board the CSO Wellservicer were the brave people who would fulfil it.

CSO Wellservicer CSO Wellservicer: Sat steady
The Wellservicer proved well-chosen. Used to operating in inhospitable conditions in all the world's oceans, her bulk and sophisticated satellite positioning equipment, enabled her to sit steady in the water as high winds whipped the Irish Sea into a heavy swell.

Her twin cranes were visible from the shore 11 miles distant, but lifting the boat clear of the water to send in the fire brigade's body recovery team needed calm conditions and there was no sign of a suitable weather window.

At that point, a new plan was hatched. From the Wellservicer, three teams of three divers had worked round the clock in six-hour shifts for five days preparing the wreck for recovery.

Location pinpointed

They had cleared debris and made the wreck safe. They had enabled it to be raised from its starboard side to an upright position. They had emptied the hold of seven and a half tonnes of scallops. They had pinpointed the location of three bodies.

They were confident that if they could get down into the crew quarters they had to find the other four. They volunteered to do it.

Imagine their task. They are wearing cumbersome submersion suits with backpacks and heavy helmets. They are trying to negotiate tiny hatches, steep ladders and confined passageways.

The darkness is total. They cannot see an inch in front of their faces. Working by touch alone they are trying to find and retrieve seven dead men. And they did it. They got them all.

Relatives Relatives travelled to the isle to await the recovery
Back on the Isle of Man the families wept tears of relief. No wonder their first words of thanks were for those divers. But their gratitude extends also to the Isle of Man Government which agreed to fund and organise the bodies' recovery on humanitarian grounds.

Senior officials have told me privately that the initial pledge was made "blind" with no real clue about the method or cost. They just knew it was the right thing to do and, as good as their word, they saw it through.

In the villages of the Machars peninsula where the crew had lived, that gesture will never be forgotten. Had the Harvester sank a mile further out to sea - in UK waters - what would have been the outcome? Almost certainly very different.

Public money

The trend started by the families of the lost Peterhead trawler Sapphire - who raised funds to pay for the return of their loved ones - has been continued by the Manx authorities who put up public money.

They say it is not a precedent, but it is. Woe betide the London government if it fails to deliver next time demands are made to bring home men lost in UK waters.

Already, noises are being made of a possible change in policy with methods of funding being explored. It that happens, the Solway Harvester disaster paved the way.

On the night of 11 January, I was in Kirkcudbright within hours of the boat being posted missing.

It was always important to try to hit the right tone, but had I?
Willie Johnston
This week I was at the funerals. I have followed the story every step of the way for 30 emotionally-draining, physically-sapping and professionally-challenging days during which I have filed countless radio and television reports. It was always important to try to hit the right tone, but had I?

As mourners drifted away from the funeral of Craig, Robin and David Mills in the Isle of Whithorn an unknown man approached me from the crowd and thanked me for my coverage and sensitivity. That was when, finally, I turned away and cried.

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See also:
10 Feb 00 |  Scotland
Final Harvester funerals to be held
09 Feb 00 |  Scotland
Harvester crewmen laid to rest
05 Feb 00 |  Scotland
Crewmen's bodies brought ashore
04 Feb 00 |  Scotland
Divers begin to recover bodies
25 Jan 00 |  Scotland
Manx Parliament backs salvage plan
13 Jan 00 |  Scotland
Solway Harvester: The crew
12 Jan 00 |  Scotland
Fishing community faces up to loss

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