Rescue crews tell of sea horror

RESCUE crews described the conditions as "the worst we've ever seen" as they plucked crew and passengers from the stricken Riverdance.

Seven metre high waves and winds of up to 70mph battered the ferry which at one stage was feared would capsize.

RAF airmen Lee Turner, Giles Ratcliffe, Rich Taylor and John Stevens risked their own lives to winch eight people of those on board to safety.

Six other crew members were airlifted from the vessel by the Navy as the 6,000 ton boat listed precariously.

But the modest crew of the RAF Valley, based in Anglesey, today insisted they were just doing their jobs.

He added: "The vessel was the worst I've ever seen for listing. I was nervous, but I have a good crew behind me. I was very secure.

"The four passengers were extremely frightened. You are just happy you can get on the boat and get the people off as soon as possible. We sent two people at a time and then a couple went up with me.

"I have been in some big seas like the Atlantic, but never anything quite this high."

Master Aircrew Rick Taylor, who has been in the RAF for 18 years, said the rescue mission was complicated further by the positioning of the evacuees on the right hand side of the boat.

He added: "It was the best place for them to be if it toppled over, but it was the most difficult side for us to winch in.

"We've never had to think so much about how we are going to execute it.

It carried a lot of risk but I am only doing my job. It is the best job in the world."

Flight lieutenant Lee Turner, who piloted the mercy mission, said the rescue attempt had been made more difficult because it was in the dark and in gusting winds of between "30 and 70 knots".

Flight lieutenant Turner said the crew received a call at 8pm putting them on stand-by for a rescue mission before being dispatched to the scene at 8.20pm.

He said: "We had to formulate a plan among ourselves to rescue the people onboard.

"It was quite a difficult situation for the aircraft. I wouldn't say it was impossible, but it did take quite a bit of head scratching."

While air crews rescued the passengers and crew lifeboats from Fleetwood and Lytham circled the vessel to make sure tragedy did not happen.

Rachel Edwards, spokeswoman at Lytham St Annes Lifeboat station, added: "Our lads were helping with the rescue last night when the helicopter was winching those on board to safety.

"Both our boat and the Fleetwood boat were using our search lights, focusing them on the vessel to act as a reference point for the helicopter pilot while they were aiming to get the winch on to the deck.

"As you can imagine with the weather conditions that was a very difficult task as positions were constantly changing with everyone being blown to and fro. It was a night which required the strongest of stomachs on the water.

"The boat then had to moor at Fleetwood as the weather was too heavy to bring it back in to St Annes.

"The crew went home but will be relaunching soon and may be asked to go back to the scene to help out."

John Matthews, deputy launching authority for Fleetwood Lifeboat, said: "By the time our boat arrived at the vessel everybody had been winched to safety.

"We are waiting nearby to see if there will be any pollution issues rising from her position. There will be damage to the vessel."

Mark Clark of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said rescue efforts were hampered by the bad weather.

"The weather out there was horrendous," he said.

"A mayday was broadcast in the area to see if there were other vehicles nearby that could help, and some have responded."

He added that by 9pm everyone on board had assembled on the ship's bridge and a helicopter had begun winching them to safety.

Mr Clark said: "The three men who remained in the engine room were told to abandon their posts and get on deck."

The ship is a roll-on roll-off vessel, or "ro-ro" for short. It carries cargo but is also allowed to take up to 12 passengers.

The vessel is believed to have been carrying a cargo of trucks and trailers.

Kevin Hobbs CEO of Seatruck Ferries, which owns the vessel, said: "The ferry tipped over after being hit by a wave. The cargo spilled causing the ship to list on its side.

"We declared an emergency incident. Nine crew have stayed on board to stabilise the vessel."

Asked why the ship had sailed in bad weather he added: "Ships sail in bad weather and this weather is no worse than the average weather on the Irish Sea. The captain takes the decision whether to sail or not.

"When the ship set off there was no cause for concern."

Fleetwood lifeboat coxswain Paul Ashworth said that the sea conditions for him and his five crew members were the worst he had experienced in 10 years with the Fleetwood crew.

The volunteers, a plumber in the daytime, said: "It was pretty bad, especially beacuse it was night and you can't see where the waves are coming from. The most frightening thing is when it's black because you can't see what's happening.

"We arrived at the same time at Lytham lifeboat and the first helicopter. The helicopter pilot was talking to the master of the ship who was very calm and professional.

"The helicopter was there to winch people off and we stood by."