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Anger as 10-year delay hampers Fatal Accident Inquiry into tragedy aboard Fife vessel

The Forth Guardsman.
The Forth Guardsman.

Findings into the cause of a man’s death aboard a Fife boat have been released a decade after his death, sparking criticism that shortcomings in Scotland’s fatal accident inquiry (FAI) system hampered the investigation.

Boguslaw Kopec died on March 13, 2011, following an accident on the Fife-registered Forth Guardsman south of Jura on the west coast of Scotland.

A FAI released 10 years later has revealed his death could have been avoided.

However, the sheriff who conducted the FAI also criticised the length of time taken to reach the inquiry stage – suggesting that vital evidence which may have led to prosecutions may have been missed.

Mr Kopec, 47, who was a Polish national, had been employed at the time by Burntisland firm Briggs Marine, who had been contracted to lay a power cable between the islands of Jura and Islay.

The area where the incident took place.

The FAI heard that Mr Kopec died of “severe blunt force chest trauma” caused after a messenger line – a line connected to the mooring – came under tension.

As that rope tightened, it pinned Mr Kopec against the railings of the boat before one of the stanchions buckled and he was pulled over the guardrail into the sea.

In her written judgement, Sheriff Frances McCartney, sitting at Dumbarton Sheriff Court, expressed her condolences to Mr Kopec’s friends and family and conceded the passage of time had not helped matters.

“The procurator fiscal issued a notice of the Inquiry on August 24, 2020,” she said.

“This was nine-and-a-half years after Mr Kopec’s death.

“Not only is that a significant delay for Mr Kopec’s family, but that delay has had a significant impact on the availability of evidence to the inquiry.”

The MAIB report into the incident highlighted in detail how the accident occurred.

The inquiry revealed he was floating face down for some time before another crew member managed to reach him and hold his head out of the water, and another boat also operated by Briggs Marine quickly attended, with a diver.

Mr Kopec was rescued from the water and was airlifted to Crosshouse Hospital in Kilmarnock, but he was pronounced dead a short time later.

Sheriff McCartney suggested a number of precautions might have prevented Mr Kopec’s death, namely that the crew of the Forth Guardsman could have tied in to a mooring using a stopper or other means of preventing the mooring line from moving during the connection process.

The findings also suggested maintaining the vessel’s position during the mooring process and ensuring that Mr Kopec was supervised during the mooring process may have prevented his death.

The sheriff also noted Mr Kopec had not been wearing a life jacket at the time of the accident and the ship’s captain did not follow overboard recovery and emergency procedures in place at the time of the accident.

The Forth Guardsman, which was involved in the tragedy back in 2011.

The Marine Accident Investigation Branch’s report into the incident concluded that insufficient manpower had been assigned to the mooring operation, that some risks were not properly identified, that seamanship practices on board the vessel were poor, that Mr Kopec had stood in an open bight of rope, which closed around him, and that communication procedures were inadequate.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s probe included a report to the procurator fiscal recommending that the captain should be considered for prosecution.

The Crown chose not to proceed.

A spokesperson for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service said: “The procurator fiscal received a report relating to a 58-year-old male and an incident said to have occurred on March 13 2011.

“After careful consideration of the facts and circumstances of the case, including the available admissible evidence, Crown Counsel decided that there should be no proceedings taken at this time.

“The Crown reserves the right to proceed in the future should further evidence become available.”

A spokesperson for Briggs Marine said actions were taken following the incident to “further underpin the company’s robust safety culture among all staff”.

They added: “As the findings of Sheriff McCartney’s report are published, our thoughts and sympathies remain with Mr Kopec’s loved ones, for whom his loss almost 10 years ago is undoubtedly still incredibly poignant.

“We take the continuous improvement and review of all working practices extremely seriously and our primary focus is always on safeguarding our employees through minimised risk in a dynamic work environment.

“Briggs Marine wishes to again express its sincere condolences to Mr Kopec’s family and friends.”