A dramatic rescue by a salvage team

Fedra comes ashore at Europa Point.

With an emergency helicopter grounded and a daring cliff-top rescue halted by blinding spray and hurricane-force winds, all Jim Conroy could do was wait as waves pounded the cargo ship Fedra against the rocks at Gibraltar’s Europa Point. Eleven men were still on board, exposed to the full fury of the storm as they huddled on the bow of the vessel, which had broken in two.

Conroy, salvage master for Titan Maritime LLC of Pompano Beach, Fla., was working on a nearby wreck with other company personnel when the storm blew in. Their resourcefulness and experience in vessel salvage would be put to a different mission: saving the lives of Fedra’s 31 crewmembers, including the 11 left stranded in the darkness.

“We just hoped they could hold on long enough for the wind to subside," Conroy said. “To have to sit for six hours was a very difficult decision, but we worried about the risk of hurting them and our endeavors. In the end it all worked out unbelievably."

Fedra, a 35,886-ton Greek-owned bulk carrier, ran into trouble on the morning of Oct. 10, 2008, after its engine failed and it began to drag anchor in heavy seas. Despite the efforts of two tugs to secure towlines, the vessel ran aground and was pinned to the base of the cliff below the Europa Point lighthouse.

A Spanish rescue helicopter responded and airlifted five crewmembers to safety, but it was clear to Conroy and other Titan personnel that the operation was in danger.

“Big walls of water were coming up over the top of the cliff," he said. “We realized it wouldn’t be long before the helicopter was grounded."

Titan salvage officer Nigel Raithby (left) and Gibraltar Captain of the Port Peter Hall watch as heavy seas drive the ship landward. Photos courtesy Titan Marine/Dan Schwall

Soon afterward, the helicopter pilot was forced to make an emergency landing due to engine problems. The Titan crew, working a half-mile away on the wreck of New Flame, a 26,824-ton bulk carrier that sank in 2007, quickly stepped into the breach. After a number of phone calls, a Titan subcontractor in Spain supplied a crane and personnel basket that were brought to the cliff top.

“The most impressive part was that it was done on a Friday evening during the middle of an unprecedented storm," said Dan Schwall, vice president of Titan and manager of the New Flame project. “Moving an asset across a difficult border (Spain and Gibraltar) is not an easy thing to do on a Monday afternoon, let alone a Friday evening."

Using the crane to lower and raise the basket, emergency personnel began hauling small groups of men off Fedra.

Within an hour the pounding surf severed the ship at cargo hold No. 6, making it more difficult to place the basket on the port bow where the crew had gathered. Fears grew that the basket would become hung up as the bow surged back and forth, possibly pulling the crane off the cliff.

At about midnight the storm intensified to the point where rescuers could no longer see the bow, forcing them to halt operations.

“We had to stop because we were not accomplishing anything," Schwall said. “Water running off the side of the cliff and the wind created this suspension of sand in the air that you couldn’t see through, even if you had goggles on. Trying to keep the basket from getting fetched up was impossible."

A local mosque provided shelter as the wait began for a break in the weather. A public address system was used to call down to the stranded men, who signaled back with lights to let rescuers know they were still alive.

“We were hopefully optimistic, tempered by the fact of not knowing when the wind would abate or how long they would be able to survive with seas rolling between the hatch covers," Schwall said. “We recognized that everyone may not come off the ship with their lives."

At about 0700 the wind slackened and the rescuers seized the opportunity. In one hoist of the basket the remaining mariners, mostly Filipinos, were lifted to safety. They were treated at a local hospital and released with no serious injuries reported.

“The last haul was rather dramatic," Schwall said. “Not everyone made it into the basket on their own power. There was a lot of work between shipmates to make sure everyone did."

With the rescue operation concluded, the Titan team turned its attention to the wreck. Fedra was not carrying cargo at the time of the grounding, but had about 300 tons of fuel in its tanks, at least half of which spilled, according to the government of Gibraltar.

The oil was “controlled and treated," authorities said, although environmental groups reported globules washing ashore on both sides of the strait. Titan deployed booms and later pumped out the remainder of the fuel aboard Fedra.

“Titan was hired right off the bat to assist in mitigating the fuel situation," Conroy said. “We had pollution gear on hand for the New Flame, and due to the fact that we shut down (during the storm) we were able to maneuver in response to Fedra. The stern sat atop of a pinnacle and there was some breaching of a side fuel tank."

The bow section from the No. 1 to No. 5 cargo holds was pulled from the rocks in January by the tugboats Warrior and Neftegaz 57. It was towed to the port of Gibraltar to be scrapped along with the accommodations block, which was cut from the stern section. The remainder of Fedra, from hold No. 7 to the stern, is still pinned at the base of the cliff, Conroy said.

After Fedra’s engine failed off Gibraltar in heavy seas on Oct. 10, 2008, the ship’s anchor began dragging. Two tugs attempting to get the ship under control were unable to secure towlines.

“We’re in an extreme weather period in the Mediterranean now, waiting for better conditions to come," he said in February.

The remaining salvage work for the Liberian-flagged ship has been put out for bid by its owner, Dilek Transporting Inc. of Greece. Schwall said Titan is one of the interested parties.

“It’s a complicated case that probably won’t be resolved anytime soon," he said. “Hopefully it will happen this year."

Conroy said Titan’s work on New Flame is nearly complete, with 39,000 tons of scrap metal removed from the ship’s original cargo of 42,000 tons. The Greek-owned bulk carrier was transporting the scrap to Turkey for recycling when it collided with the Danish oil tanker Torm Gertrud south of Europa Point in August 2007. While the tanker sustained only minor damage, New Flame was breached and sank in shallow water with its stern section above the surface. The stern and the accommodations block have been removed and the wreck is no longer visible.

The storm that devastated Fedra also took a toll on Titan’s equipment at the site of the New Flame wreck.

“We took our licks," Schwall said. “A barge that was still on the New Flame was pounded, which was very destructive to the mooring system."

The grounding of Fedra is under investigation by Gibraltar police and the Gibraltar Maritime Authority. Police investigators reported in October that the ship was unable to sail away from Gibraltar’s coastline during the storm because the vessel’s engine had been partially dismantled. Three of the ship’s officers were subsequently detained on suspicion of carrying out repairs without permission from the port. They were released on bail and have not been charged to date.

In the wake of the rescue of the Fedra crew, the Gibraltar government commended “the excellent and professional actions" of Gibraltar’s emergency services. It also expressed gratitude to the Spanish government for “its positive response to requests for support," and to the Titan salvage personnel who assisted in lifting the crewmembers to safety.

“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever been able to accomplish," Conroy said. “They were cold, but we got them home." •

By Professional Mariner Staff