‘We’ve never rammed a vessel,’ collision inquest told
A crewman on a police boat involved in a fatal collision at sea told a court on Thursday that at no time had they tried to ram the rigid-hulled inflatable boat they were chasing.
Speaking from behind a screen having been granted anonymity by the Coroner’s court, the officer said the chase had been carried out at a safe distance of 20 to 30 metres.
He acknowledged evidence that showed the collision occurred in Spanish waters but insisted he had believed he was in British waters on the night in question.
The officer also acknowledged that RGP rules require crews to patrol only in British waters and that any engagement with vessels must be done in a safe and controlled manner.
Police crews are not permitted to chase vessels to try to stop them, not least because the only way to stop a powerful boat is to disable the engines.
“We’ve never rammed a vessel,” the officer told the court.
“We don’t intercept by attacking engines.”
The officer, identified only as Officer Two, was giving evidence during the fourth day of an inquest into the deaths of Mohamed Abdeslam Ahmed and Mustafa Dris Mohamed, two Spanish nationals from Ceuta who died in the collision. Two other men on the RHIB sustained injuries but survived.
Christopher Finch, the lawyer representing the families of the deceased, quizzed the officer on a serrated band known as a “log defender” that had been fitted to the bow of the police vessel.
Police offices have told the court that the purpose of the band is to protect the hull and engines from floating debris.
But Mr Finch told the court the boat had been “weaponised”, suggesting to Officer Two that they had come up behind the RHIB and tried to damage the engines “with the saw”.
The officer rejected this.
During his evidence, Officer Two recounted the events of that night.
He said the Sir John Chapple had headed to the east side of the Rock after receiving reports of a suspect RHIB in the area.
He believed at the time of the chase that the police boat was inside British waters near the outer edge opposite Eastern Beach, adding that while he could see lights on land in the distance, he could discern no landmarks.
Officer Two said that when the chase began, the RHIB began making “erratic” movements left to right and “crossing our bow”, adding its occupants were throwing objects at the police boat.
The RHIB was also trying to spray the police vessel with its wash and at one point, a large wave covered the Sir John Chapple, blinding its crew, the court heard.
“Then I felt a sudden and large impact,” the officer said.
“[The Sir John Chapple] started to tilt to the right heavily and water was rushing in.”
He described how he grabbed a handrail and his seat until the boat settled upright again.
He then jumped onto the RHIB where he found an agitated man standing on the bow waving his arms and screaming, with another crouched down nearby.
He saw two persons lying on the deck of the RHIB.
“I just felt a cold shiver and I couldn’t move,” he said, as he realised the magnitude of what had happened.
Officer Two said he had feared for his safety as he did not know how the men on the bow would react.
He was joined on the RHIB by another RGP officer who told him one of the men on the deck appeared to be dead.
They returned to the police boat, tied a towline and began to return to Gibraltar having alerted colleagues on shore.
Officer Two acknowledged that they had not tried to give first aid to the injured, describing how they were in shock.
Pressed on this point by Neil Costa, the lawyer representing the RGP, the officer replied: “I was traumatised.”
“I was so shocked I couldn’t move.”
“It was a mess. It was a mess.”
The officer described how on the voyage back, he had requested Customs be called because the tow was taking too long at five to six knots.
About 50 minutes after the collision, they transferred the injured men to a Customs RHIB opposite Sandy Bay, before heading back to the RGP’s marine base.
Mr Finch asked the officer about the location of the chase and the collision.
The court had previously heard that the incident unfolded in Spanish waters off La Atunara and “well outside” British Gibraltar territorial waters.
The officer insisted he believed on the night that they were in British waters, echoing the words of the police vessel’s coxswain a day earlier.
Mr Finch put it to him that he was reciting “an agreed version of the facts”, something the officer rejected.
“Your boat should never have been in that position, it should never have started that pursuit, it should never have crashed into that boat,” Mr Finch said.
Officer Two was also asked about the police boat’s navigation equipment, which would have plotted and transmitted the vessel’s location but had been switched off.
He said it was the coxswain’s decision what equipment should be used, and that the glow of the navigation kit could impact night vision.
He acknowledged too that RGP rules required the AIS transmitter to always be switched on.
Charles Bonfante, the lawyer representing the police officers, asked Officer Two whether it had been their intention to leave British waters that night.
“No,” came the reply.
“Did you intend to hit the vessel in order to stop it?” Mr Bonfante asked.
“No, sir,” Officer Two replied.
The jury also viewed CCTV footage on Thursday showing the chase and the collision.
The grainy black and white images were recorded with a thermal camera from a location on land in Spain.
Richard Meikle, a marine investigator who gave evidence at the inquest earlier this week, said the footage broadly confirmed the findings of his investigation.
He found that there was no evidence that the police vessel intended to collide with the RHIB, and that the collision “was an accident”.
But he added that by navigating so close to the RHIB with impaired visibility, the RGP crew had put themselves and the RHIB’s occupants in danger.
He acknowledged too that the actions of the RHIB’s occupants had been dangerous both to themselves and those around them.
The inquest is being heard by Coroner Charles Pitto and a jury of nine.
It is a fact-finding exercise and is not tasked with apportioning criminal or civil liability.
The jurors may, however, may make recommendations after hearing the evidence if they decide this is appropriate.
The inquest continues.