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Barge men in race to beat storm; Trawler families wait and hope.

Salvage experts today begin a race against time as they bid to raise the Sapphire from the seabed.

Storms are threatening to hamper the operation to recover the bodies from the wreck of the trawler. Forecasts predict force eight gales late tomorrow night and say they will last until Sunday.

The giant barge Tak Lift 4, brought in to winch the Sapphire to the surface, can't operate in heavy seas.

It arrived in Peterhead yesterday and was expected to leave today for the wreck site, 12 miles off shore.

But barge bosses admit it could be early next week before the doomed boat is brought to the surface.

Families of the four crewmen who drowned in the tragedy want the bodies recovered for a proper burial.

Last night, Isobel Podlesny, whose husband Victor died, wept: "We are all just glad that the operation is about to start and we just hope it will be a success.

"It's a very anxious time for us. Once we know the barge has left we will just be thinking about them getting on with their job. We'll all be hoping and praying that our men are still in the boat and we can have our wishes fulfilled."

Shirley Stephen, who lost husband Robert, added: "We are all very emotional at the moment.

"It's going to be a very hard and trying time for us all."

The other men lost were Bruce Cameron and Adam Stephen.

Grieving families of the four launched a campaign and raised even more than the pounds 380,000 needed to recover the boat.

They were backed by the Daily Record.

But the Government have been blasted as "cold and callous" for refusing to help pay for the Tak Lift 4.

It was involved in recovering tragic ferry the Herald Of Free Enterprise.

Today and tomorrow, the barge will take advantage of good weather to make progress before the storms batter the north east. Gales of more than 60 knots are expected.

But the salvage master on the barge, Wytse Huismans, is hopeful of success.

He said: "I'm confident we can carry out this operation successfully.

"We have to review the weather because we are not taking any chances."

The operation to lift the Sapphire, which is lying in 270 feet of water, will end weeks of agony for the families.

Inspections of the trawler will possibly be carried out tomorrow.

But experts fear this could be hampered until early next week.

Operations manager Mike Barclay said: "We want to get going as quickly as we can because of the severe weather coming across this area in the next 72 hours."

He said the Tak Lift 4 could not operate properly in waves over two to three metres high (about 6ft to 9ft).

Once the barge is over the Sapphire's resting place, two underwater robots will inspect the trawler on the seabed to make sure she can still be lifted.

The underwater vehicles will attach straps to the bow and stern of the boat before steel cables from the barge's huge winch are slipped into position.

The Sapphire, lying on its starboard side, will then be inched slowly to the surface.

Once held hanging above the waves, sea water will be pumped slowly from the boat.

Salvage inspectors will then go inside and begin searching the wheelhouse in the hope of finding the four missing bodies.

If nothing is found, they will work their way down into the engine room and finish in the packed fish hold. It is understood some of the missing crew were sleeping in their bunks when the Sapphire went down on October 1 as it headed back to Peterhead.

Only skipper Victor Robertson survived, by scrambling out of the wheelhouse.

The raising of the Sapphire could also give investigators vital new clues into what caused her to sink.

Experts from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch will be on board the barge to inspect the boat when she breaks the surface.

Police officers will also be aboard to carry out their own inquiries and begin the task of naming bodies.

SNP leader Alex Salmond praised the families' campaign and condemned the Government's handling of the affair.

He added: "We still have no indication of any help and what the Government do now is largely irrelevant.

"The Government will have to answer to their dreadful conduct at a future time."

Salmond added: "There was always a risk with salvage operations but everyone was confident the Sapphire can be raised."
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Author:Smith, Steve
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Nov 14, 1997
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