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Fatal accident inquiry hears of last moments of Cemfjord in Pentland Firth

By Alan Hendry

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The Cemfjord capsized in the Pentland Firth in early January 2015.
The Cemfjord capsized in the Pentland Firth in early January 2015.

A fatal accident inquiry has been told of the final moments of the cargo ship Cemfjord, eight years after it sank in extreme conditions in the Pentland Firth with the loss of all crew.

The Cypriot-registered freighter capsized on January 2, 2015, while taking a cargo of cement from Denmark to England. The Hrossey ferry, sailing from Lerwick to Aberdeen, discovered the upturned hull.

The eight crew – seven Polish men and one from the Philippines – were never found.

A fatal accident inquiry at Wick Sheriff Court heard this week that sea conditions at the time of the tragedy were "extraordinarily violent", according to the Marine Accident Information Branch (MAIB), with winds gusting up to 90 mph and waves of 10 metres or more.

Sheriff Gary Aitken will publish his determination at a later date.

The Cemfjord had left the Danish port of Aalborg on December 30, 2014, with 2000 tonnes of cement bound for Runcorn in Cheshire. It was last seen sailing between Stroma and Swona at 1.15pm on January 2.

Over 24 hours later the Hrossey encountered the upturned hull some 10 miles east of the Pentland Skerries.

No distress call had been made from the ship.

Coastguards and lifeboat crews from Caithness and Orkney took part in a two-day search without finding any trace of the crew.

The Cemfjord's owner later ruled out the idea of any bid to salvage the 272ft vessel.

Mike Coupland, secretary of the Caithness branch of the Merchant Navy Association, was among those who took part in a memorial service in St John’s Episcopal Church in Wick in the weeks after the tragedy.

Speaking last year, after it was confirmed that an inquiry would be held, Mr Coupland recalled: "Nobody knew anything about it until the Shetland ferry saw the bow of it poking out the water with the name on it.

"The only involvement I had was in the service. Until that stage there was no acceptance that they were lost because they'd not found anybody – they were still searching.

"We had candles on the table for each of them, and I lit one of the candles.

"At the same time they put the Red Ensign up at half-mast. We happened to have a spare Merchant Navy wreath and it was passed round afterwards and everybody signed it and we sent it to Poland."

Management from the vessel’s operators also attended the Wick service along with representatives from the Polish consulate and crews from the RNLI and coastguard service.

A stone memorial at John O'Groats commemorates the loss of both the Cemfjord and the George Robb, a trawler that came to grief at Duncansby Head in December 1959. The German shipping firm that owned the Cemfjord – Brise, of Hamburg – gave John O'Groats Development Trust a substantial donation towards the memorial.

The MAIB used remote operated vehicles (ROV) and sonar equipment to carry out scans of the Cemfjord, which was lying on its side. During the probe, one of the ROVs was lost because of the strength of the currents.

The company concluded that it was too dangerous for divers to travel down to the wreck.

Those lost on the Cemfjord were the ship's master Pawel Chruscinski (43); chief officer Jaroslaw Orlow (54); chief engineer Roman Tamas (56); third engineer Jerome Narvasa (32); ordinary seaman Henryk Dubanowski (55); ordinary seaman Tomasz Kwiatkowski (31); able seaman Artur Podrazka (24); and ordinary seaman and cook Artur Wegorek (24).

In July 2015, some 30 relatives of the crew travelled from Poland and the Philippines to take part in a ceremony on a boat in the Pentland Firth.

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