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News / Courage and sacrifice remembered at 20th anniversary of Green Lily grounding

Coastguard helicopter winchman Bill Deacon lost his life moments after saving the lives of the last crew members of the Green Lily. Photo: RNLI


ONE OF the most dramatic rescues in Shetland’s modern history will be remembered this weekend with a wreath laying ceremony at the site of the grounding of the Green Lily off Bressay, followed by a commemorative service in the Shetland Museum.

Helicopter winchman Bill Deacon was tragically swept into the sea after he had helped ten crewmen off the stricken vessel in a force 11 storm, in the afternoon of 19 November 1997.

An hour earlier, the Lerwick lifeboat had managed to pull five crew to safety from the deck of the violently moving Green Lily in a daring rescue that earned coxswain Hewitt Clark an RNLI Gold Medal in recognition of his heroism, leadership and incredible seamanship.

There is agreement among local seafarers that the accident and the tragic loss of life could have been avoided had the master of the 3,624 tonne vessel ordered his crew to evacuate the ship earlier.

Eyebrows were raised when the 107 metre long vessel left Lerwick harbour with a cargo of frozen fish in the morning of 18 November 1997, sailing into a force nine south-easterly gale which was forecast to intensify.

At 6.10am the following day the Green Lily suffered engine failure when the engine room started to flood after a sea water supply line to the fire and general service pump had fractured. All attempts to restart the engine failed.

By the time the drama began to unfold Green Lily was just 14 miles to the south-east of Bressay drifting towards shore at a speed of 1.5 to two knots per hour.

The Sullom Voe harbour tug Tystie, as well as the anchor handling tugs Gargano and Maersk Champion which were both berthed at Lerwick Harbour, responded to Shetland Coastguard’s mayday call.

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Gargano was the first tug to arrive at the scene. A towline was attached but parted after 21 minutes in heavy seas. An attempt by Tystie to tow the vessel away from the rocky shoreline was also unsuccessful.

The master of the Green Lily was then advised to drop her anchors to slow down the drift. However, the vessel was only able to release one of her anchors.

The rescue effort now became a race against time in order to get the crew off the vessel before she would hit the rocks.

The Lerwick lifeboat approached the Green Lily from the lee side and over several manoeuvres was able to pull five men off the vessel.

Hewitt Clark was at the helm of the lifeboat. Speaking about the Green Lily rescue this week, he said: “The time we went to get people off the boat had dropped her anchor and had swung around almost head to the sea.

“Although she was still drifting, that gave me an opportunity to go in alongside.

“We went in several times, sometimes no one was ready to come off, but eventually we got five of them off and then the Maersk Champion snagged her anchor to hopefully tow her away, but the chain broke and she swung around again, and after that I couldn’t do anything anymore.”

With daylight fading, the helicopter evacuation started at 2.44pm. Six minutes later the vessel was aground. The master and the second engineer were the last people to be winched to safety, while winchman Bill Deacon remained on the now heavily rolling vessel to await the return of the lifting harness.

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch report describes what happened next: “At 1456, while attempting to lower the winch cable to recover the winchman, the hi-line became snagged in the rigging.

“At the same time the helicopter crew became aware the winchman was no longer on deck and had been swept into the sea.

“Unable to free the hi-line and, with increasing danger to the helicopter, it had to be cut.”

Mr Deacon’s body was found the following day off the South Isle of Gletness, some 10 miles to the north.

Watching events from the shore were a number of local reporters and Bressay residents.

One of them, Kenny Groat, said: “It was a very dramatic scene and it is something that you will never forget.

“The full reality only hit once you heard that there was a loss of life. None of us realised that when we were on the cliff there. It was only after I was going across to Lerwick, when I heard on the VHF that they were still searching for the winchman.

“It was a very well executed rescue by the lifeboat and took a lot of expertise by the crews who, I am sure, can’t be thanked enough for saving the crew of that vessel.

“I feel if the skipper had gotten off sooner then there wouldn’t have been a loss of life, but that is said in hindsight.”

Fellow islander and journalist Jonathan Wills added: “The winchman was a hero. The conditions were terrifying, particularly after the ship hit the rocks.

“But he stayed on board until he’d made sure everyone else was safe. He really did give his life for those crewmen.”

Coxswain Clark, one of the most highly decorated RNLI crew members in history, describes the rescue as “one of the most difficult tasks” he had been involved in “due to sea conditions and proximity to the shore”.

“I still think about it. If people had come off the vessel when I first asked them to, and then pleaded with them to come off, maybe there would have been a different result at the end of the day,” he said.

“By the time the decision to abandon ship was made, the rescue effort was running out of time as the shore got closer and closer and daylight waned.”

The MAIB report, issued on 25 June 1999, found that the main cause for the grounding was the lack of propulsion and the failure to restart the engine.

However, it is highly critical of the master and describes his decision to sail in view of the prevailing and predicted weather conditions as “imprudent”.

Bristow’s chief pilot at Sumburgh Search & Rescue, Stuart Cunliffe, said: “The tragic events of the Green Lily rescue highlight the dangers that rescue crews are constantly exposed to in the conduct of their duties.

“This accident is a continued reminder of the dedication, professionalism and the heroism required of individuals that practise search and rescue on a daily basis, whether by air, land or sea.”

On Sunday at midday, both the lifeboat and helicopter crews will lay wreaths at the site of the grounding of the Green Lily. This will be followed by Alan Deacon laying a wreath at Grutwick in Bressay, at the cairn that was erected in memory of his late father.

A commemorative service will commence at the Shetland Museum and Archives at 2pm, with Aubrey Jamieson of the Fishermen’s Mission due to conduct the ceremony.

The video above was made available by the RNLI.

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