A decade after MSC Napoli beached on Branscombe’s shore

PUBLISHED: 10:28 18 January 2017 | UPDATED: 11:35 18 January 2017

Napoli 2017. Picture: Simon Horn

Napoli 2017. Picture: Simon Horn


An ‘unprecedented’ disaster that has left a lasting legacy in East Devon

Napoli 2017. Picture: Simon HornNapoli 2017. Picture: Simon Horn

The grounding of the stricken MSC Napoli on Branscombe’s shore has gone down in history as one of the biggest and most expensive shipwrecks of all time.

A decade after the day that saw a quiet coastal village plunged into the international media spotlight, the community reflects on an environmental disaster with a £120million price tag that has left a lasting legacy.

It was on Thursday, January 18, 2007, that a distress signal was first raised to say the 62,000-tonne ship was in trouble and on Saturday, January 20, she was run aground in stormy waters just off the East Devon coast.

The immediate aftermath saw hundreds of looters descend on Branscombe beach, seeking treasure from the 40-odd containers that washed ashore, causing gridlock on the roads and wrecking havoc in the village – with reports of bins being stolen to carry goods.

With the eyes of the world on the village, authorities struggled to stem the flow of scavengers who were making off with items – ranging from a BMW motorbike to a single shoe.

Finally, on Tuesday, January 23, police were given powers by the Maritime and Costguard Agency to seal off the village and prevent people accessing the beach.

Meanwhile, it was ‘all hands on deck’ as a full-scale rescue operation came in to play to save the thousands of birds and wildlife affected by oil spill.

A scene of ‘chaos’ is how PCSO Steven Blanchford-Cox remembers the moment he first came on duty after the disaster.

He said: “There were streams of vehicles heading to and from Branscombe. My first involvement was stood at a check point, stopping cars on the A3052. Police officers were drafted in from all over Devon and Cornwall.

“It did make me sad when I saw people walking up the beach with people’s personal belongings.”

PC Steve Speariett was neighbourhood beat manager for Seaton at the time and said he and his team worked around the clock handling the ‘almost impossible task’ of controlling the traffic.

Reflecting on the disaster, the retired police officer said: “I felt proud to be a part off it - it’s part of Branscombe history and always will be. I would never want to go through it again because it was very stressful.”

Terry Hoare, station manager of Beer Coastguard, described watching as the 900-foot-long vessel, loaded with 2,323 containers was bought to shore by tug boats.

“They wanted to get it grounded where they could deal with it, rather than letting it sink in the water,” he said.

As the community rallied to take part in the immense clean-up operation, Terry recalls how many people would get just four hours sleep, before resuming efforts to clear the beach.

Sidmothian John Govier says January 20, 2007, is a date he will always remember and recalls first hearing about the disaster from his son in Singapore – so quickly had the news spread across the globe.

John said: “We were in the middle of a series of severe gales – the seas had been very rough and stormy for several days.

“Many containers were washed off the decks of the Napoli, some washed into Branscombe beach. That is when the fun started. Treasure hunters arrived from all over the country - and indeed the continent.

“This was to become one of the biggest shipwreck treasure bonanzas of all time.

“Brand new motorbikes were ridden up the beach, beautiful wooden barrels and other treasures were snapped up. More and more flocked to the beach and at this point it was starting to get out of hand.

“We didn’t know at the time that this was to become one of the most expensive shipwrecks of all time. It was clearly visible from Sidmouth and completely overwhelmed quiet and beautiful Branscombe and Beer. Sidmouth became a hot-spot for journalists.

“No-one knew then how long the salvage operation would take and its demise, that would not be known for another two-and-a-half years.”

‘Stranded on our shores’ was the Sidmouth Herald headline the week of the disaster and it was in July 2009 – two and a half years after the shipwreck – that the newspaper finally declared the salvage operation complete.

Following failed attempts to tow the vessel and a rejected plan to sink it for divers, the MSC Napoli was split in two by a controlled explosion and lifted from the sea in pieces.

The entire operation cost an estimated £120million - the second most expensive shipwreck in history.

Councillor Stuart Hughes has responsibility for shipping incidents in the Local Government Association’s coastal special interest group. Looking back, he said: “Even now, 10 years after the sinking of the MSC Napoli off Branscombe, remnants of the cargo are still being washed up on East Devon beaches.

“I do hope that lessons have been learnt and that any future incidents of this type of beaching vessels anywhere along the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site will be resisted.

“We were extremely fortunate that the oil on board the MSC Napoli was removed before it escaped and that our coastline wasn’t scarred for many years.”

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