By Ivar Brynildsen, Claims Manager, Wilhelmsen Insurance Services
A dark December night
At about 0215 hrs everybody on board TRICOLOR was shaken by a sudden impact and a terrifying noise. Immediately following the impact the general alarm was sounded and everyone except those on the bridge hurried from their cabins to the mustering station. The third engineer in the engine room miraculously managed to evacuate through the elevator shaft and accompanied the others on deck as TRICOLOR took on a rapidly increasing port list. They managed to launch an inflatable life raft and all managed to escape the sinking vessel safely.
On the bridge the Captain, the second mate and the lookout had observed the vessel that they were about to overtake on a parallel course on their port side. Suddenly they became aware of the same vessel turning hard to starboard and witnessed the vessel abeam on their port side steaming right at TRICOLOR. The Captain immediately put the rudder hard to starboard but there was no way to avoid the other vessel and KARIBA hit TRICOLOR with its bow on TRICOLOR’s port side just aft of the bridge. The men on the bridge of TRICOLOR immediately sounded the general alarm to alert their resting companions and they also managed to send out distress signals on the radio before the heavy list to port forced them off the bridge and into the cold sea and the dark night. Luckily they were picked up by the KARIBA’s crew, who managed to launch a life boat very quickly and initiate a search for the TRICOLOR’s crew. The crew in the life raft was picked up by the tugboat BOXER that happened to be in the vicinity. All 24 people on board TRICOLOR were rescued without any injuries other than the obviously horrific experience of suddenly finding oneself in utter danger by being forced to escape into the cold sea on a dark December night.
The emergency response
A very important task for the ERT was to organise the landing and care of the crew. Many people were engaged locally in France and Belgium to receive the crew and arrange for medical care and lodging. As they had lost all their belongings, there was a need to meet the crew’s basic needs as well as to organise provisional identification and travel documents for their repatriation. It was also necessary to shield the crew from the media, make them available for questioning by authorities and giving statements to the shipowners’ own lawyers.
Another very important task for the ERT was to make sure that all relatives of the crew members were properly informed as soon as possible so that their first knowledge of the disaster would not be from the media. This was immediately attended to by the crewing agent in the Philippines.
Pollution prevention and safety of navigation
Regardless of whether there was a possibility of salving the vessel for repairs or whether she was a total loss beyond repair, it was established that the bunker oil had to be removed to avert the danger of pollution.
A further concern was the fact that the position of the sunken vessel did constitute a severe danger to navigation in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. Smit Salvage, who happened to have vessels in the vicinity, were contracted in the early hours of 14th December 2002 to start preparing for the oil removal immediately. They were also instructed to guard TRICOLOR temporarily, with special regard to traffic in the vicinity and any possible escape of oil. The ERT also co-ordinated with the French authorities to have the position properly marked and issue navigational warnings. In spite of that, the wreck was actually hit by other vessels on two occasions. Wilh.Wilhelmsen and Gard then contracted two especially dedicated guard ships to protect and secure the position of TRICOLOR. This proved to be a wise precautionary measure as later there were several near-collisions that were averted by the interception of the guard vessels.
The actual pumping of the oil from the hull started on 23rd December 2002 and was conducted under very difficult conditions due to strong tides and winter weather. The oil removal operation was finished on 22nd February 2003. Out of a total of 2,155 cbm of bunkers, 1,455 cbm had then been recovered and it was estimated that about 100 cbm remained inside as clingage in the tanks. It was also estimated that about 50 cbm were trapped in slots from where pumping was not possible. Sixty cbm remained in inaccessible settling tanks in the engine room. The integrity of these tanks was, however, not in danger.
Unfortunately, the calculations showed that about 490 cbm of heavy fuel oil were unaccounted for and thus might have escaped to sea. Out of these 490 cbm, it is thought that about 210 cbm escaped during one unfortunate incident when a valve broke due to rough weather during the oil removal operation.
There was further speculation that some passing vessels may have taken advantage of the situation and discharged some of their slop in the vicinity of the wreck, but this has never been proven to be true.
The consortium presented a feasible plan for cutting the wreck in sections which could be lifted and transported to shore, a method with which they had previous experience. The plan also included a strategy to deal with the cargo, environmental issues and media-handling, which was of vital importance. The operation as a whole had to be conducted in strict conformity with local and international environmental regulations. The salvors also had resources to deal directly with the general public’s great interest in the wreck removal operation.
The contract was on a fixed price basis and had an estimated time frame for the operation that seemed promising. Unfortunately, that time frame later proved to be too optimistic.
At this time there was considerable interest from the media, especially with regard to the oil and wreck removal operations. In order to provide prompt and correct information, salvors and owners set up a website which covered every aspect of the operation step by step.
On 11th November 2003 the wreck removal operation had to be temporarily halted due to the adverse winter weather. At this time all the necessary cutting of the wreck had been finished and roughly half of the wreck had been removed and landed at the reception and demolition plant in Zeebrugge.
All security measures with regard to guarding the wreck were still in place and astonishingly enough there were still incidents of near-collisions that were averted by the two guard vessels.
The remaining parts of the wreck were now deteriorating rapidly and it was clear that the next phase of the wreck removal, starting in the spring of 2004, would be more of a grabbing process.
The operation resumed in May 2004 and finally completed in October 2004, by which time the wreck site had been thoroughly surveyed and found to be clear of wreckage and debris. The French authorities then promptly declared that the wreck removal order had been complied with and could be lifted.
Throughout the whole ordeal the shipowners have relied heavily on the excellent assistance from their insurance partners Norwegian Hull Club and Gard P&I, as well as technical experts London Offshore Consultants, ITOPF and Scandinavian Underwriters Agency, Antwerp. The London office of the Norwegian law firm Wikborg Rein has been appointed as the main law firm and is assisted by local lawyers Fransen in Belgium, Holman Fenwick & Willan in France and Holland & Knight in New York. Northern Shipping Logistics has represented Wilh. Wilhelmsen in the negotiations and settlement of the pollution claims in France. The co-operation and relationship with Premar of France and authorities in the other coastal states involved (Belgium, Holland and UK) have also been very good and constructive.
The support and involvement of the P&I Club and the hull and machinery insurers is of paramount importance in a case like this. There are a number of issues to be dealt with from the very beginning that a shipowner can not take on alone. The shipowner needs to direct his attention to his business and normally does not have resources that can be fully dedicated to deal with all issues arising in the aftermath of a disaster such as the one in question. So as soon as the Wilh. Wilhelmsen emergency response team could be demobilised, a team consisting of representatives from owners and underwriters took over the further handling of the case.