A massive rescue operation was launched today to save 111 sailors on board a stricken fishing ship after it caught fire 230 miles off the British coast.
The crew began abandoning ship to the liferafts as flames ripped through factory fishing ship The Athena after fire broke out in the processing room of the 344ft vessel
Athena caught fire more than 200 miles south-west off the Isles of Scilly with the nearest coastline believed to be Brest in Brittany.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency issued a ‘broadcast action’ to all nearby shipping after it received a satellite distress call.
A passing cargo vessel, the Vega, stopped to aide the rescue and began taking the crew – thought to be Russian, Peruvian and Scandinavian – on to life rafts.
Initially 81 people were rescued from lifeboats while the remaining crew attempted to contain the fire while Falmouth coastguards co-ordinate the rescue.
Rescue helicopters and five merchant ships made their way to assist the stricken vessel, in what was said to be difficult conditions.
A spokesman for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said the Falmouth coastguard station was contacted by French counterparts.
He said: ”We assume they received a distress call from the Athena by a satellite distress system.
”We are co-ordinating a search and rescue mission, but it’s a long way from either the UK or French coast.
”It’s a little lumpy for a rescue. It’s five to six so a fairly moderate sea state, pretty jumpy to get people out of a life raft on to a very high-sided bulk carrier.
”The fire was so fierce the skipper decided to evacuate 81 people to life rafts but because of the distances out a helicopter will only have about 20 minutes over the top of it.
”We put out a broadcast action, which means we sent out a message to any ships in the area that could assist. We have got some ships that have responded and are proceeding to the area.
”We’ve got three commercial vessels proceeding with one, a cargo ship, already there. The cargo ship is helping to offload people in the life rafts.
”The ship is not thought to be sinking and the fire is being contained. The fire is still burning, but less than it was.
”A passing vessel stopped to help because the ship is so far off land. First aid is being given to any passengers that need it. The rescue is made more difficult by the weather conditions making the sea choppy.”
A spokesman from RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall said a rescue helicopter had been scrambled and was being held on the Isles of Scilly for refuelling.
It could reach the ship, but it was at the aircraft’s maximum range and it would have to pick up about 10 crew and head straight back.
Another helicopter was on standby and more were available if necessary, the Culdrose spokesman added.
Athena, owned by Faroe Island-based company Thor, was constructed in 1992 and rebuilt in China this year after suffering an earlier fire.
A Thor spokeswoman said the company was dealing with the incident and could give no further details.