Ceisteanna — Questions. Oral Answers. - Kowloon Bridge Disaster.


asked the Minister for Defence if he will give details of the involvement of the Naval Service in the recentKowloon Bridge sea disaster off Cork; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Naval Service vessels have been involved since 20 November 1986, observing and reporting on theKowloon Bridge events.

The Minister's reply is very short. Can he tell us the equipment which was used and the number of people who were involved? What did they do? Why were the RAF used again on this occasion?

On 20 November theLE Aisling was instructed by Naval headquarters to proceed to Bantry Bay to observe the Kowloon Bridge. On 22 November Naval operations, Haulbowline, were called by Shannon and told the Kowloon Bridge had lost her rudder. The approximate position was given. The Naval Service undertook to act immediately. The Kowloon Bridge was tracked down and confirmation was received that the entire crew had been taken off by helicopter. The initial message was that the crew had been in danger. On 23 November a request was made by the oil pollution operations group for Naval Service assistance. The LE Aoife reported the Kowloon Bridge 11½ miles off Fastnet Rock. The Aoife was instructed to proceed towards the ship. She observed the ship and reported it being grounded the following day, 24 November, on Stags Rock.

On 28 November, the Naval Service involvement in this area was stood down by the oil pollution operations group as the threat of oil pollution from theKowloon Bridge had receded. The Navy received a request from the local civil authority to provide a vessel to enforce a 1,000 metre exclusion zone. This came about because of the action of the Receiver of Wrecks and because boats were approaching the Kowloon Bridge and allegedly stripping her of equipment. We provided a boat to undertake this work and ensure that the exclusion zone was observed.

The Deputy also asked why we had to rely on British naval helicopters. We have no operational craft to do this kind of work. As the Deputy knows, we purchased a number of helicopters which are eminently suitable for search and rescue but because of the complicated equipment on board and the length of time it takes to train personnel they are not yet operational. Personnel are being trained and will shortly be in a position to do the kind of work we have always been dependent on other people to do for us.

Does the Minister agree that these helicopters were ordered over four and a half years ago and that we have been consistently told we would have them "shortly"? Will they be ready to go into service soon rather than having this nation constantly embarrassed by the fact that we are not able to give a proper rescue service?

I do not accept that we are embarrassed. It is sad that the Deputy would regard the saving of 28 sailors by a British helicopter as an embarrassment to us.

I did not say any such thing. The principle that we have to rely on British helicopters to do this work for us is embarrassing. Do not misconstrue what I said.

I have explained on many occasions why there have been delays in the delivery of these craft. They have now been delivered.

They are not all here yet.

They are.

Since when?

I do not check every morning to see what has arrived.

There were only four here a month ago.

Personnel are being trained and I assume that we will be in a position during the coming year to operate these helicopters which are first class search and rescue machines. They were purchased for that reason as well as for fishery protection purposes.

TheLE Aisling was monitoring the progress of the Kowloon Bridge which was drifting helpless in the Atlantic for 30 hours. Did the Naval Service consider putting personnel on board at any stage to switch off the engines and keep the ship on the high seas until such time as she could be taken in by a tug? I am amazed that the Naval Service did not contemplate that.

I am not in a position to say what the Naval Service considered doing in the circumstances that confronted them. That might have been considered and found not to be an option.

Is there anybody in a position to say?

Deputy Sheehan asked the question I had intended asking. I am amazed at the answer. Will the Minister check with the Naval Service and find out why they did not consider putting people on board to try to knock off the engine and keep the vessel at sea until salvage tugs were able to take her properly in tow?

I shall do that, but I must say I am amazed at the insinuation that is rife in the House that the Naval Service are in some way responsible for what has happened. We are talking here as landlubbers, without having any idea of what is involved.

The Minister may be, but I am not.

Neither am I.

We have no idea of the circumstances prevailing out there at the time. The Deputies may take it that consideration was given to all the options at the time.

The Minister said he did not know.

If I had said that I knew, I should have been misleading the House. I am assuming and I shall find out.

The Minister said he did not know.

I am being harassed for being honest.