ROYAL Navy sailors battled to save all 27 crew members of a blazing ship in the early hours of the morning.
The ship’s company of HMS Argyll spent eight hours saving every soul aboard the Grande America in the Bay of Biscay after the ship’s cargo of containers and cars caught fire.
The frigate, on her way home to Plymouth after nine months away in the Asia-Pacific region, responded to a mayday from the 28,000-tonne merchant ship about 150 miles southwest of Brest.
The Grande America’s crew were fighting a losing battle against the flames and eventually all 27 crew members attempted to escape by cramming aboard the lifeboat.
However it smashed into the heavy seas as it launched, damaging the craft which was then unable to make headway.
Despite very difficult sea conditions, Argyll succeeded in launching her sea boat which nudged the lifeboat against the frigate’s side so the Grande America’s crew could be brought aboard.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said: ‘HMS Argyll’s swift and selfless response to very dangerous situation in difficult conditions undoubtedly saved 27 lives. I commend her crew.
‘This rescue demonstrates that even on the final leg of a challenging nine month deployment to the Far East, the Royal Navy’s sailors remain vigilant and professional at all times.’
In the heavy seas, the orange lifeboat – which is ‘like the one in Captain Phillips' – was bobbing around ‘like a cork in a bathtub’, said lieutenant commander Dave Tetchner, HMS Argyll’s weapon engineer officer.
He added: ‘The conditions were horrendous – the vessels were rolling at 30 degrees which made it extremely hairy getting the sailors safely on board.
‘Royal Marines were on the ropes hauling people up, the sea boat was pushing the lifeboat against Argyll.’
The 27 rescued sailors are being taken to the French port of Brest.
Lt Cdr Tetchner said none suffered life-threatening injuries but some would require hospital treatment and all were stunned by their ordeal.
‘It was pretty awful for them,' he explained.
‘They’d had to fight a fire in dreadful seas. Every one of them suffered smoke inhalation.
‘Then they faced the prospect of abandoning ship and then their lifeboat failed. It was pretty awful all round and they were shocked.
‘You see container ships like this every day when you’re sailing around the world. What you do not see is one in flames – it was a dreadful sight.'
MV Grande America was still on fire when Argyll left the merchant ship around 5am.
The Italian-registered vessel had been bound for Casablanca from Hamburg when the fire broke out at 8pm yesterday.
Lt Cdr Tetchner called the manner in which the 200 sailors and Royal Marines aboard HMS Argyll – due home on Friday – responded to the incident as being exemplary.
He said: ‘You couldn’t single any one individual out – the way the whole ship responded was magnificent and demonstrated how good our training is and how every person on board reacted.
‘The sea boat crew and the seamanship specialists, the Royal Marines getting stuck in, the bridge team handling the ship, the communicators co-ordinating things, the doctor, medics and stewards treating people and the chefs cooking up beans on toast in the middle of the night.
‘These are the things people join the Navy for – a real life, really worthwhile job, especially when the result is a good one like this.’
The commanding officer of HMS Argyll, Commander Toby Shaughnessy, who is from the Portsmouth area, said: ‘I am incredibly proud of my Ship’s Company and the way they performed in this rescue effort in the most challenging of conditions.
‘Without doubt this was a near run thing. The conditions were on the limit for recovery and this could just as easily been a different result.
‘It was an exceptional team effort and there’s a great feeling on board after a successful result – everyone was saved.’