Image: BBC, Bristow Group, Shetland Coastguard, MCA.
Twenty years ago, this month, the UK search and rescue services lost an outstanding character when Coastguard Winchman Bill Deacon, was killed whilst carrying out his search and rescue (SAR) helicopter duties in the Shetland Islands.
The vessel ‘Green Lily’ was a relatively small (by today’s standards). She was Bahamian registered, 3,624 gross tonnage, single-engined, refrigerated general cargo vessel, built in 1978 and lengthened in 1984.
She had loaded frozen fish (horse mackerel) in Lerwick Harbour, Shetland Islands, and sailed for the Ivory Coast early on 18 November 1997. The weather on departure was south-east force 7, increasing to severe gale force 9, and eventually storm force 10 with gusts of near hurricane velocity.
Early on the morning of 19 November and when only 15 miles south-east of Bressay, a sea water supply line fractured in the engine room.
The flooding was controlled and pumping out had begun when suddenly the main engine stopped. In deteriorating weather conditions, unsuccessful attempts were made to restart the engine.
Her Majesty’s Coastguard at Shetland was advised of the situation, and “Pan Pan” messages were transmitted followed by “Mayday Relay” broadcasts.
Three tugs, including the ‘Gargano’ were launched into the foul weather to assist. A Coastguard helicopter (Mike Charlie) was tasked and Shetland’s Lerwick RNLI lifeboat was launched.
A tow by Gargano was initially successful but parted after about 50 minutes. An attempt by the Coastguard helicopter to lift off non-essential crew was aborted due to vessel movement.
The second tug ‘Tystie’ then made a second tow connection but failed after just a few minutes. It was decided by the Master that the Green Lily’s starboard anchor should be let go to slow the vessel’s drift towards land.
In a very brave effort, the lifeboat then approached and successfully rescued five crewmen before weather and sea conditions prevented further attempts. This rescue was also hampered by the crew attempting to bring their luggage with them which slowed any transfer. Their heroism and skill earned Coxswain Hewitt Clark the RNLI’s highest honour – the Gold Medal, with Bronze Medals for each of her other five crew.
The last of the three tugs, the ‘Maersk Champion’ snagged the starboard anchor of Green Lily, but as the tug pulled her head into the wind and away from Bressay, the anchor cable parted.
As the lifeboat was unable to recover the rest of the crew, and with the Green Lily very close to the rocky shoreline, the remaining crew had to rely on the Coastguard helicopter ‘Mike Charlie’ for rescue. In 20m and breaking seas, Deacon was winched down to the deck of the vessel. Once on board he placed the remaining crew members, two at a time, in the rescue strops and they were all winched to the safety of the helicopter.
As the helicopter was in the process of recovering Deacon, who was alone on the deck and with the ship now on the rocks, he was washed overboard and engulfed by the waves before the aircraft could complete his rescue. His body was eventually discovered the following day after being swept 8 miles away.
With the Green Lily now aground and starting to break up, the rescue attempt was suspended overnight.
In recognition of Deacon’s outstanding courage and bravery in the most severe and demanding conditions he was posthumously awarded the George Medal.
A cairn was raised on Bressay as a tribute to Mr Deacon, who was also posthumously awarded the Royal National Lifeboat Institution’s Gold Medal – its highest award and after the Fatal Accident Inquiry, the Sheriff noted in a postscript about Mr Deacon,
…”in remaining on board when the waves were breaking over her and it was obvious that the time to evacuate safely was rapidly coming to an end, and in choosing to put his casualties first…he proved himself to be heroic”.
This tragic incident raised the bar in search and rescue safety standards and has resulted in the dual hoist on board search and rescue helicopters which is now a standard piece of search and rescue kit across the globe.