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Sea Empress disaster 20 years on

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Screen Shot 2016-03-02 at 15.33.15IT WAS one of the biggest environmental disasters ever to hit UK shores and now 20 years on from the Sea Empress disaster RSPCA staff are looking back at the role they played in helping to save hundreds of seabirds and mammals.

Early on the evening of 15 February, 1996 the Sea Empress, a single hull oil tanker, hit rocks on its way into the Cleddau Estuary and the ship’s cargo of 130,000 tonnes of crude North Sea oil started to spill into the waters off Pembrokeshire.

The RSPCA launched a massive rescue operation in response to the disaster in an effort to save the thousands of oiled and dying seabirds that were so badly affected by the slick.

Scores of volunteers helped open and run a makeshift animal hospital – set up in an old industrial unit – where more than 7,000 dead or oiled birds were taken – while inspectors, drivers and wildlife centre staff experts worked around the clock to nurse, clean and feed as many of the birds back to health as they could.

“The rescue operation took a massive team effort,” said RSPCA chief inspector for the south west Wales inspectorate group, Romain de Kerckhove, who held the same position 20 years ago.

“It quickly became apparent that this incident was of a scale that needed national resources, and a roster was arranged that invited colleagues from all over England and Wales to become involved,” he said.

“Officers would attend, for a limited period, and would work extremely long days, responding to calls from the public, and patrolling beaches to search for victims of the disaster.

“They were accommodated locally, and would be replaced by other colleagues in order to keep the team fresh and strong. Some officers would actually sleep on camp beds at the temporary bird rescue holding/cleaning facility, in order to ensure that there were people on site overseeing the welfare of the birds 24/7.

“This was a rescue that involved teams from across the entire RSPCA, as well as countless volunteers who would work with us, and assist the RSPCA teams both at the cleaning and rehab centre, as well as on the beaches.

“It was hard work, but everyone enjoyed the atmosphere and being involved in such a worthwhile and much needed rescue operation.”

Richard Abbott, who is now an RSPCA chief inspector, was the officer on duty the night the Sea Empress ran aground. “I recall speaking to a Brecon RCC (Brecon Regional Control Centre) tasker who said they had received a call saying a tanker had run aground at Milford Haven and was leaking 30,000 gallons of oil.

I recall thinking, no chance, that’s never going to have happened, not these days with twin hulled tankers. I asked the tasker to ring the Coastguard to double check as I was driving and enroute to an emergency at the time, about 10.30pm ish.

“She rang me back about five minutes later and said to my astonishment that the Coastguard had confirmed the report. I pulled over and rang the chief inspector Romain de Kerckhove at home and started the response.

“I got back in about 1am that night and by 7am I had the call that I was needed to help set up the emergency response centre. A few hours later chief inspector Romain de Kerckhove arrived and took over.

“It was incredibly stressful for those three to four weeks, as we dealt with thousands birds and managed many rescue organisations. It was a steep learning curve.”

RSPCA inspector Rohan Barker attended the day after the incident with chief inspector Romain de Kerckhove.

“We spent two days putting together our response working with several organisations with very few birds coming in during the initial couple of days – but then the onslaught started.

“We worked 15 hour shifts collecting birds, setting up the cleaning station at a local industrial estate building provided by the council.

“Birds were collected by inspectors, animal collection officers and members of the public, brought to the station, initially cleaned and shipped off to RSPCA West Hatch Wildlife Centre by a fleet of vans.”

Dermot Murphy, who is now assistant director of inspectorate at the RSPCA, was one of the convoy of ambulance drivers drafted in from across the country at the time of the disaster to help ship stricken birds from the Pembrokeshire coast to the makeshift hospital.

“I was an RSPCA Ambulance Driver in London then, with just over a year’s service. I was sent to Milford Haven with an Inspector for a week.

“I had never seen anything like it. So many birds covered in oil in a terrible state, they were still being washed up two weeks into the operation. The birds that stuck in my mind were the common scoter, which is a sea duck. There were so many of them, an incredible amount and in such a bad way too.

“We had a busy week and did a range of duties, from collecting food to feed staff, patrolling beaches looking for oiled birds and cutting up food to feed the birds. It was a massive cleaning operation.”

Inside the RSPCA West Hatch Wildlife Centre in Somerset Paul Oaten was one of the team at the ready to take in casualties as they arrived in their droves from the Welsh coastline.

“We took in around 1,200 oiled birds. at the time of the Sea Empress disaster. They were covered in thick oil. Most of the casualties were scoters, and they were very badly affected.

“Luckily we had a lot of volunteers that came in to help with the sheer volume of birds that were coming in through the doors every day. People were happy to come in and wash towels while others spent their days cutting up sprats (fish) for the birds to eat.

“Those that were tasked with washing the birds would be in teams of two. One would hold the birds, the other would clean it using Fairy liquid. They would have a pre-clean where we would try to get as much of the oil off as possible without stressing the birds out. It was so important to get the oil off their plumage, not just because of the feathers but so that we could try to prevent them from ingesting the oil and stop it from burning them too.

“A lot of the birds were emaciated because they could not feed so building their strength back up and increasing their weight was also an important part of the process.”

He added: “Every role was vital to ensure we could keep the steady flow of birds through the cleaning system and the sense of teamwork was immense. That is my overwhelming memory of that time. the teamwork. It was so uplifting. The days were long and it was hard work but we were all working towards a common goal of trying to save these poor stricken birds.”

WWF-UK Head of Marine Policy Dr Lyndsey Dodds said told The Herald: “20 years on from the Sea Empress, Welsh waters are busier than ever but management is still piecemeal.

“The forthcoming Welsh National Marine Plan offers the opportunity to strategically manage activities that can impact upon Wales’s natural assets and should include provisions to ensure that the risks to the most sensitive areas from both accidental and chronic pollution are minimised.”

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News

Tenby woman injured in South Wales crash which left young man, 21, dead

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A TENBY woman was injured in a serious road accident on the A465 near Hirwaun, Rhondda Cynon Taf, which left a young man dead.

Also injured in the crash were three men aged 18, 22 and 25, The Herald can confirm.

The tragic crash happened following a police pursuit, and the Office for the Independent Office for Police Conduct is now involved in the investigation.

The 21-year-old, Robbie-Lee Selway from Merthyr Tydfil, sadly died on Thursday, May 13.

The crash involved a blue Ford Fiesta and a white Renault Clio between the Hirwaun and Llwydcoed junctions of the A465.

His family said: “We as a family are deeply broken by the tragic accident that left our family without a daddy, son, brother, uncle, partner and friend.

The police also confirmed that an 18-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving

“We ask that everyone give us some privacy at this very sad time. We appreciate everyone’s support through this time.”

A spokesperson for the Independent Office for Police Conduct told this newspaper in a statement: “The collision between a Ford Fiesta, which we understand was being pursued by a South Wales Police vehicle, and a Renault Clio, occurred shortly before 11 am.

“The IPOC understands a 21-year-old man who was in the Fiesta has sadly died, and a number of people were taken to hospital.

“Following a referral from the force we sent investigators to the scene and to the police post incident procedure to begin our enquiries.

“The man’s family have been advised of the IOPC involvement.”

An 18-year-old man has been arrested on suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving following Thursday’s crash.

A police spokesman for South Wales Police told The Pembrokeshire Herald: “We are appealing for anyone who may have witnessed the collision or the manner in which the Ford Fiesta was being driven in the Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare areas in the hours prior to the incident, or anyone who may have any dash-cam footage of the incident and who has not already done so to come forward.”

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Education

School’s concern over ‘inappropriate use of images of staff and pupils’

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THE HEADTEACHER of a Pembrokeshire primary school has written to parents and guardians following concerns over certain social media activity.

Mrs Clare Hewitt, of Neyland Community Primary School, said that it filled her “with great sadness” to have to email parents and guardians of pupils at her school.

She added that the school had alerted the police regarding the matter.

Mrs Hewitt said that it came to light that there had been “inappropriate use of images of staff and pupils for TikTok pages and Messenger groups.”

The school said it is asking that all parents, where their child uses social media, to check social media accounts to ensure that they are being used appropriately and safely,

Parents or guardians with concerns have been asked to telephone the school on Monday or to contact Mrs Hewitt by email.

Parents and guardians of pupils were contacted by email on Saturday night (May 15).

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Business

Boost for town: Local celebrity Matt Baker to take on the Castle Hotel

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A WELL known local musician and radio DJ is to take on a landmark business in Haverfordwest. The nine bedroom Castle Hotel is probably one of Pembrokeshire’s best known venues – but Matt Baker says it is now under new management.

Matt Baker is not doing things slowly, with a planned opening of the premises on May 28 promising live music, good food and a relaxing atmosphere for all ages. For what is sure to be a positive piece of news for Haverfordwest’s ailing town centre, he is currently advertising for staff, thus creating jobs.

Matt, who previously ran The Tiddly, made his announcement on his Facebook page this morning (May 16), with hundreds of people liking the post and many more wishing him well with his new venture.

Matt Baker is a DJ for Pure West Radio based in Haverfordwest (Pic: M Baker/Facebook)

He wrote: “Well folks I got some exciting news.

“As most of you know cruise ships have been a big part of my life, 16 years on and off.

“In between that I did open my own pub here in Pembrokeshire call The Tiddly and worked me bottom off to provide a great place for people to come and switch off with live music every night.

“That unfortunately had to come to an end and I have missed it very much.
Well, seeing as I can’t go back to ships at the moment I’ve decided to take on an adventure I
“I’ve always dreamed one day I would own and that is a Hotel.

“It’s not just any Hotel, but one full of amazing history right here in the heart of Pembrokeshire and right in the Center of Haverfordwest.

“Everyone said when I was at The Tiddly “we love it here but we wish you were in town” as The Tiddly was 3 miles outside of Haverfordwest.

The Castle Hotel is steeped in history, and is a Grade II listed building. The Boxing Day Hunt, with riders, horses and hounds late 19th century. (Pic DA Images)

“I’m super excited to start a new chapter in my life and with the support of the people of Pembrokeshire and beyond and I’m hoping it will be life long.

“The Hotel has nine beautiful rooms on suite and a lovely restaurant area and a lounge/bar which I’m planning to have all up and running very soon, all been refurbished by the way.
We still are In uncertain times but I’m hoping we are at the back end and can enjoy each other’s company like before and socialise.

“I’m bringing back live music, good food and drink, and a place to come and switch off for all age groups with a comfortable and enjoyable environment.

“I’m planning for the 28th of May to be open, that’s in just under 2 weeks, but if you know me, you know I like a challenge.

“Please come support and follow all guidelines for now as we move forward in these new times.

“I will look forward to welcoming you to The Castle Hotel with open arms and let’s make more great memories together.

“See you soon Pembrokeshire and beyond!”

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