MSC Napoli 10 years on: Rescue mission 'burnt into memory'

Helicopter and lifeboat Image copyright Royal Navy
Image caption The 26 crew members were winched from the ship's lifeboat to Royal Navy Search and Rescue helicopters

A heroic airman who rescued the entire crew of a stranded container ship says the ordeal is "burnt into my memory".

Jay O'Donnell recalled the day he managed to get all 26 crew members winched from the MSC Napoli's lifeboat on to Royal Navy helicopters in 40ft waves.

The rescue effort 10 years ago was 46 miles off the Cornish coast and lasted four hours.

"I had some really close moments where I thought 'this might be it'," he said.

More on the Napoli grounding, and other news

The 62,000-tonne vessel had been badly damaged in a storm in the English channel on 18 January 2007 and started taking in water through a hole in its side.

Petty Officer O'Donnell was winched from an RNAS Culdrose based Royal Navy Search and Rescue helicopter into the sea to rescue the crew.

He then swam through a 40ft swell to the ship's lifeboat where the crew had gathered and proceeded to attach all 26 to the winch line one at a time.

Image copyright PA
Image caption MSC Napoli ran aground off the coast of Devon

Mr O'Donnell recalled: "The lifeboat they were in had very little control and was rolling all over the place. And the more people we got off, the lighter it was and the more unstable it became.

"We were absolutely fuel critical - the helicopter crew was signalling how many minutes we had left.

"When we got back we were literally on fumes. But I knew they'd come back for me if they had to.

"That day was the most dramatic I've ever seen the sea," he said.

He was awarded the Queen's gallantry medal for his part in the rescue.

The huge ship ran aground in the following days.

Up to 200 tonnes of oil leaked from the vessel, which had to be broken up with explosives.

Motorbikes, pet food, wine barrels and anti-wrinkle cream were among the varied items that washed up on Branscombe beach in Devon.

Scavengers arrived in their droves from around the country to explore shipping containers - being transported from Antwerp to South Africa - scattered along the coast.

MSC Napoli in numbers

Image copyright Getty Images
  • Total containers on board at start of journey: 2,318
  • Persons on board and rescued: 26
  • Containers lost overboard: 114, including two lost in French waters prior to vessel being beached
  • Containers washed ashore: 80
  • Total oil spilled: 302 tonnes (estimated)
  • Cost of incident: £120 million.
  • Duration of incident: 924 days (2 years, 6 Months and 12 days)
  • Salvaged items: Around 50 BMW motorbikes, a 4x4 vehicle, ladies' shoes, Bibles in a foreign language, nappies and personal items.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption People travelled from around the country to see the shipping containers

As news spread hundreds of people arrived to view the scene, with some scouring the wreckage for free booty.

The beach was shut by police after the roads leading to it became clogged with visitors.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption BMW motorbikes were among the items washed up on Branscombe beach
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Barrels were also washed ashore

Coastguard officials pumped 3,500 tonnes of oil from the vessel to prevent more fuel leaking into the sea.

The bow section was towed to the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast to go for scrap, while the ship's 13.5 tonne anchor was put on display in Branscombe.

The salvage and wreck removal operations officially ended in July 2009 with an estimated salvage cost of £50m.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption MSC Napoli had to be broken up with explosives
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The anchor of the ship was installed at Branscombe

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