Tragic Scots fishermen drowned in boat disaster because of faulty gas cylinder used for life raft


Three men who drowned at sea after their fishing boat sank during the night would “almost certainly” have survived if a gas cylinder used to inflate their life raft had been properly maintained, a sheriff has concluded.

Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle says “dysfunctional” working practices at maintenance firm Thameside Fire Protection meant a CO2 cylinder on board the Louisa had been misleadingly labeled as full when it was empty.

As a result, it did not inflate the vessel’s emergency life raft when the trawler began to sink in the early hours of April 9 2016 in Mingulay Bay, off the coast of the Outer Hebrides.



Lost crewman Chris Morrison, who had two young daughters

Skipper Paul Alliston, from Lewis, and crewmen Martin Johnstone, of Caithness, and Christopher Morrison all drowned in the disaster, which the sheriff concluded could have been avoided if proper maintenance had been carried out of both the cylinder and the life boat itself.

The body of Stornoway man Morrison has never been recovered while the fourth crew member, Lachlan Armstrong, survived after swimming to shore and clinging to rocks until he was rescued.

In his written determination following a fatal accident inquiry into the disaster, Sheriff Pyle said: “If the crew had been able to climb aboard an inflated life raft they almost certainly would have survived, given that the general weather and sea conditions were benign.

“It is also beyond doubt that the reason the liferaft did not inflate was because the CO2 cylinder did not work.”

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Sheriff Pyle, who presided over similar hearings for the Clutha helicopter disaster and the Glasgow bin lorry crash, heard that life boat owner Comtalk (Leasing) Limited had subcontracted maintenance of the gas cylinder to Thameside Fire Protection.

But during its most recent servicing of the container, Thameside admitted it had mislabelled the cylinder as being filled with CO2 without checking if this was the case.



Martin Johnstone died in the tragedy
Martin Johnstone died in the tragedy

The inquiry also found that the lifejackets provided to the crew of the Louisa weren’t working properly – but this was not ruled to be a contributing factor to the men’s deaths.

Comtalk, which trades as Premium Liferaft Services, has tightened up its processes to ensure cylinders are checked before being loaded onto boats.

Thameside says it no longer carries out this type of service, having stopped immediately after the accident occurred.

However, the owners of the boat, Duncan and Murdo Kennedy, were criticized for not having the liferaft overhauled in 2015, in line with rules on renewing fishing vessels.

The sheriff concluded that if the lifeboat had been renewed in line with the empty cylinder regulations would have been replaced too, potentially averting the disaster.

He wrote: “It is plain that the owners were not maintaining the vessel in a satisfactory manner.

“The fact is that while the owners did not directly cause the deaths, they could have prevented them by properly discharging their responsibilities to maintain the vessel.”



Paul Alliston was the captain of the ship
Paul Alliston was the captain of the ship

The Kennedys told the inquiry they had found managing the Louisa and another boat simultaneously “difficult” and had subsequently introduced new safety measures to prevent a repeat of the incident.

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The sinking of the Louisa prompted an investigation by the Marine Accidents Investigation Branch (MAIB) and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

Ultimately, no criminal proceedings were ever brought in relation to the Louisa disaster – and neither investigators not the fatal accident inquiry have been able to identify the cause of the boat’s flooding and subsequent sinking.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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