Thu, Jan 25, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Thousands pick through beached cargo in England

STRICKEN STOCK Some of the items from hundreds of containers of goods that were washed ashore on a beach southwest of London have appeared for sale on eBay


New fences and police roadblocks on Tuesday largely prevented scavengers from reaching beached containers that had washed off the deck of a cargo ship stricken during a recent storm.

The day before, thousands of treasure hunters at southwest England's Branscombe beach braved rising tides and gale force winds to pick through the MSC Napoli's waterlogged cargo.

Police called the looting despicable, but acknowledged they had no grounds for arresting the scavengers.

"No matter what people think about it, there have been no public order offenses, and people are going about it in a good-natured way," Devon and Cornwall police spokesman Terry Hodgson said.

Under maritime law, the items recovered must be reported to a British office that handles the return of wreckage from shipping disasters. If not, the scavengers could be charged with theft.

"Frankly, the scenes that I witnessed on the beach late last night were despicable," said Mark Rodaway, the official in charge of keeping track of such wreckage.

"I spoke to a Swedish woman this morning who witnessed, on television, family heirlooms that were cast aside," he said. "There was no intent to store those goods faithfully and there was no intent to return them to their owners."

Police said that some of the items had begun appearing on eBay.

Authorities had no legal grounds for closing the beach until the contractors arrived, British Coastguard and Maritime agency spokesman Peter Conley said. Now that the beach has been declared a work site, scavengers can be arrested for trespassing.

Dutch salvage company Smit, a contractor for the ship's owners, managed to plug a leak in one of the ship's smaller fuel tanks, welding metal plates over a fissure which had released 60 tonnes of engine oil off the coast, 150km of which is designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.

None of the slick has reached the shore, although more than 900 seabirds have been coated by oil and will likely die, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Smit has also begun draining the ship of thousands of tonnes of fuel, using specially heated tubes to suck the thick, viscous oil into a nearby tanker. The process is expected to last through the weekend.

Once the fuel is removed, two crane-equipped barges will arrive to pluck the ship's 2,291 containers off the deck one by one, and ferry them toward their final destination.

Underwater recovery will also be undertaken to dredge up containers which had fallen off the ship, said Robin Middleton, Britain's chief maritime salvage official. He said the clean-up process could take as long as a year.

The British cargo ship was deliberately run aground close to the Devonshire resort of Sidmouth, 265km southwest of London, after it was damaged during a storm last Thursday.

Its crew of 26 was rescued, but more than 100 containers were knocked overboard.

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