The second expedition to the wreckage

group of people in warm coats standing in the street

Members of the Derbyshire Family Association pictured outside Downing Street on 14 December 1990. The group includes Paul Lambert (far right), Chairman of the DFA, Eddie Loyden MP (centre with hat) and John Prescott MP, then the Opposition Spokesman for Transport.

The second expedition to the wreck of MV Derbyshire was conducted in two phases during 1997 and 1998 using two underwater vehicles, one to obtain a broad view of the wreckage and the other for a more detailed inspection.

The technical achievements of the survey were exceptional. 135,774 individual electronic photographic stills were taken, then joined up to make larger pictures. Some 2500 separate items of wreckage were identified and 200 hours of video footage were recorded.

With all this evidence there was a lot of work to do before the reasons why the Derbyshire sank would be known. It took almost 11 months to publish the results.

It was established that frame 65 had not caused the loss of the ship. Instead the conclusion was that the ship had sunk because the lid to a store hatch on the fore deck had been left unsecured. Water had then flooded into the fore part of the ship causing the bow to sink down deep into the momentous seas.

The hatch on number one cargo hold had then failed under the weight of the seas and the hold flooded, making the bow sink even deeper. As the bow gradually sank deeper each hatch cover in turn collapsed under the weight of the seas and each hold filled with seawater.

This conclusion was deeply upsetting to the families because the claim that the store hatch had not been properly secured implied serious negligence on the part of the crew

Public inquiry reopened

The Government reopened the formal investigation, which started on 5 April 2000 and lasted 54 days. Evidence was taken from a number of experts.

The inquiry decided that, contrary to the findings of the second expedition, the flooding of the fore part of the ship was not caused by the store hatch being unsecured. Instead it discovered that some of the air pipes on the foredeck were damaged by continuous mountainous seas.

The sea started crashing onto number one hatch cover as the bow dropped lower in the water. As the hatch cover was not designed to withstand such enormous pressures it eventually gave way and water flooded number one hold, so the bow went down even more. The same happened to the other hatches one after the other, until each hold filled with water and the ship finally sank.

The inquiry concluded that it was most unlikely that the ship had been lost due to any other cause – including faults at frame 65. A number of significant recommendations to improve ship safety were made as a result of their findings, which are gradually being implemented.

To the relief of the families, the crew were cleared of blame for the loss of the Derbyshire. The DFA accepted the conclusions of the court.

There is little doubt that the twenty year fight of the DFA to learn the truth about the Derbyshire has had a marked effect on the safety of bulk carriers. Whereas in the 1970s about 17 bulk carriers were being lost each year, the losses are now much lower.

The Derbyshire Family Association continues to fight for increased safety at sea and is consulted by the Marine and Coastguard Agency (MCA) and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).