‘Scene of chaos’ greeted emergency services
PUBLISHED: 20:04 20 January 2017
The Napoli’s arrival off Branscombe beach was not only a huge landmark in the village’s history, but in the careers of emergency service workers and volunteers tasked with managing a ‘chaotic’ situation.
For those involved on the ground, the first few days of the operation proved a test of resources to secure the beach. They were reacting to an incident no-one would ever expect on the village’s shores.
Terry Hoare had been working in Exeter when he returned to Beer and watched the 62,000 tonne shipping container come aground.
The Beer Coastguard station manager said: “We were on Beer Head and we watched it come in - most of the team came up, as did most people that were in the village.”
Following a request from leading commanders to meet at Sidmouth Sailing Club in the evening, the team was told about what they were going to be dealing with.
Mr Hoare added: “We were just leaving to come back and then we heard the vessel lost 25 containers over the side.
“The police asked where they might come ashore. It was pretty obvious it was going to be Branscombe. We left Sidmouth in a convoy of vehicles, all with blue lights all the way to Branscombe beach.”
The ship’s arrival sparked a media frenzy, with the world’s eyes focussed on the village, and brought hundreds of people to the beach hoping to claim washed-up items from the wreckage.
Officers and volunteers on duty had limited hours to sleep, returning home for several hours’ shut-eye, before heading back for another long day of duty.
But for one former officer, the duty was almost never-ending. PC Steve Speariett, then Seaton’s neighbourhood beat manager, lived in the village and was an eyewitness to the flowing traffic trying to make its way to the beach.
Mr Speariett, who retired from the force in 2015, said it was almost an ‘impossible task’ to control the traffic until police were given powers by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to seal off the village and prevent people accessing the beach.
The Seaton resident said: “I would say it had the biggest impact on me, both in being a local policeman having that sense of responsibility, and I was living in Branscombe at the time.
“I felt proud to be a part of it; it’s part of Branscombe history and always will be. I would never want to go through it again because it was very stressful.”
His feelings were voiced by Andy Turner, Sidmouth’s police sergeant at the time, who said in the first month he would sleep at the station and return home once a day to have a meal during an 18-hour shift.
The father-of-two described the scene as ‘apocalyptic’ across the days - with oil spills on the beach and the washed- up containers.
Mr Turner said: “We saw the worst and best of people. It was just greedy people coming down just wanting to get something.
“It was my home town, it’s my local community and for me it was quite personal. The people being affected were my people, my community, but the people getting involved in some of the things were also from our community.”
He said the team ‘made a difference’ to proceedings as the coastguard and police provided a 24/seven cordon to allow security and salvage teams to begin the clean-up operation.
“It was a disaster. It had a tremendous effect on so many people, but no-one died,” said Mr Turner.
A scene of ‘chaos’ is how PCSO Steven Blanchford-Cox, of Sidmouth’s neighbourhood policing team, remembers the moment he first came on duty at the time.
He said: “I was not on duty that day, so the first I heard of it was the beachcombers and looters on the news.
“It was chaos - there were streams of vehicles heading to and from Branscombe. My first involvement was stood at a checkpoint, stopping cars on the A3052. I remember turning people away who had come from as far as Liverpool and beyond.
“Police officers were drafted in from all over Devon and Cornwall.
“It did make me sad when I saw people walking up the beach with people’s personal belongings.”
PCSO Blanchford-Cox was drafted in to take part in patrols around Branscombe and recalls people reporting their dustbins had been stolen by looters to carry goods.
To mark the anniversary, members of the coastguard involved with the operation will hold a reunion tonight (Friday) at the Fountain Head.
Police Chief Superintendent Jim Nye - the Silver commander at the time of the incident - said: “Ten years on from the incident, it is accepted that the beaching of the Napoli gave a unique challenge to emergency services and other agencies involved in the rescue and salvage operation.
“From the outset, the police’s primary aims were public safety and to support the lead agency, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).
“Following the introduction of the Civil Contingency Act in 2004, practices have significantly improved to what they were 10 years ago.
“We strive to continuously improve, learning from such incidents, in partnership through the local resilience forum, and there was much learning from this incident in the way we respond to critical incidents.
“Our contingency planning is much more developed now and we believe that, should such an incident ever happen again, we would be in a much better position to work with our partners to deal effectively with it and maintain public safety at all times.”
If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Sidmouth Herald. Click the link in the yellow box below for details.