Fifteen years ago two army engineers suffocated on a deep sea vessel that had been boarded in Lough Foyle en route from the Colombian port of Barranquilla.
Fijian Sapper Joeli Naivalurua was just 24 when he died on April 6, 2000.
His comrade Corporal Jeremy Gaulder from Plymouth was 30.
Another sapper, named Parris, was seriously injured during the operation, which had been carried out on instructions from military intelligence.
The search was abandoned due to the deaths and an official report has questioned: why?
The report also suggests the deaths may have been avoided had there been better training and communication for and among the search team.
Today the Sentinel looks at the case of Sapper Naivalurua and Corporal Gaulder, the forgotten servicemen of the diehard Troubles.
Towards the end of March 2000 just after Peter Mandelson suspended Stormont due to a lack of progress on IRA decommissioning and about the same time that the Bloody Sunday Inquiry was opening at the Guildhall, an officer of the Army Intelligence Corps boarded HMS Cottesmore to advise a search involving Army personnel was likely to be carried out on a ship, which was due to arrive in Londonderry in early April.
A few days later the Northern Ireland Squadron vessel’s command was informed the target was the Phillipine-owned and Canadian-managed Diamond Bulker, which was due to arrive at Lisahally with a cargo of coal from Barranquilla.
The Northern Ireland Squadron was established during the Troubles to intercept the importation of illegal arms and support anti-terrorist operations but official documents don’t spell out exactly what the Army were after.
This was, of course, before the whole controversy over the Colombia Three, three republicans who were accused by the Andrés Arango’s Colombian Government of the time of having travelled to South America to train FARC-rebels.
Official documents refer only vaguely to items, which Army intelligence presumably believed may have been on board.
Whether the Army believed there were people, matériel or drugs on board is never spelled out.
As it happened there was nothing illegal or improper discovered on board the Diamond Bulker during the course of the disastrous search.
All we are told is that, in advance of the search, a preparatory meeting took place in Belfast involving the navy, the marines and a specialist army search team.
“Various intelligence topics were discussed, including whether or not the holds of the vessels should be searched,” the official report states.
“The nominated search team leader, a naval officer, who had been involved in ship searches for the previous two years, stated that, in his opinion, items were unlikely to be stowed within a bulk cargo.
“The reasons for this were: the difficulty of unseen access, the method under which the cargo was discharged, and the likely atmosphere within the holds,” it adds.
Sadly, this latter assessment was to prove prescient as shall be seen.
The report also points out that the involvement of the army was uncharacteristic.
“This operation was unusual in that the army was involved. Normally the navy and marines carry out ship searches, with the navy providing the boarding officer, and the marines providing the boat handling and search parties.
“These ship searches usually cover ferries and small single-hold coasters etc, not large multiple-hold cargo vessels.”
All the search teams knew was that the Diamond Bulker had left the Colombian port of Barranquilla on March 21 carrying coal.
At about nine o’clock on Wednesday, April 5, the ship finally arrived in Lough Foyle and was anchored off Moville when it was radioed by the Cottesmore, which informed the skipper she was to be boarded by a military search operation.
Ten minutes later 17 servicemen and a dog climbed aboard. Little did the search team know the disaster that was about to unfold.
An Army Staff Sergeant informed the Diamond Bulker’s captain that the ship was being searched under prevention of terrorism legislation.
Following an initial general search he discovered two marines, who had examined a paint store in the ship’s forecastle, seemed to be suffering from the effects of the fumes.
This prompted a general warning that proper emergency escape kits and confined space and oxygen testing equipment were to be used during the operation.
All of the men - including Sapper Naivalurua and Corporeal Gaulder - were explicitly warned not to enter any of the holds.
However, it transpired that after the team was split up to continue the search a number of catastrophic errors were made by the young servicemen.
For example, Sapper Parris, though he was carrying an emergency breathing set didn’t know how to use one whilst Sapper Naivalurua did not pre-test the atmosphere before climbing down a hatch leading to the hold.
It was a fatal mistake.
“Once Naivalurua had entered the space and was a few rungs down, Parris climbed in and also started to move down,” the official report states.
“After Parris had descended a few rungs down he heard a clang but could not see anything.
“Marine McNaught, who was at the top of the hatch and had been shining a torch down the ladder, also heard a thud while he was talking to another of the team in the forecastle.
“Parris called out to Naivalurua to see if he was all right, and then he, too, lost consciousness, and fell off the ladder.”
Both men had fallen onto the coal in the hold prompting colleagues to call for help.
This is when Corporal Gaulder fatefully fell victim to the deadly CO2 that had overpowered his comrades.
“The Corporal borrowed a torch from Brunning and immediately started to enter the hatch; despite a warning from the marine.
“He managed to get to the first platform then he too fell.
“Brunning, who could only see a torch shining upwards, shouted down to the men and, when he again received no reply, rushed out on deck to get help.”
Less than an hour after boarding a helevac was ordered for the casualties of the accident whilst the search team set about trying to rescue the victims.
The men managed to successfully resuscitate Sapper Parris but for Gaulder and Naivalurua it was too late.
The lack of oxygen and increased levels of carbon dioxide in the coal hold had suffocated them.
“They saw two casualties lying in a heap on top of the coal at the bottom of the ladder,” the report explains.
“Both were lying face down, with one man lying on the legs of the other, Corporal Gaulder, was pulled clear, turned over and first-aid applied initially by both the marines.
“Once it was underway, the marine corporal went to the other, Sapper Naivalurua, turned him over and found he had a very weak pulse and shallow breathing.
“Various methods of resuscitation were tried on both Corporal Gaulder and Sapper Naivalurua but without signs of success,” it adds.
At 2.05am - five hours after boarding - the bodies of the two men were removed from the ship and the Diamond Bulker sailed to Lisahally.
The search was abandoned due to the accident but questions were later asked as to why it wasn’t completed if it was deemed so important in the first place.
While the original search team had understandably been stood down due to the trauma of the accident, the Senior Naval Officer in Northern Ireland said it had been assumed the RUC would complete the search when the Diamond Bulker was alongside in Londonderry.
The report refers to the “high profile” the operation was given by the military and suggests: “If the operation was important enough to involve a specialist search team, it was also important enough to be completed.”
So, if they had been searching a ship, which had been carrying cocaine, weapons of terrorists, they never would have known.
The report also concluded that the ship was seaworthy and entirely kosher in terms of its health and safety regulations, records and legality: it continued running coal shipments in and out of Londonderry after the tragedy.
But the report found a litany of problems with the military operation.
It said the search party were ill-equipped and in some cases ill-trained for the operation demanded of them.
For example, they had no experience of searching a ship of the Diamond Bulker’s size.
The top brass were told to fully investigate the need for a specialist army marine search team and to provide proper training to personnel in order to prevent tragedies like those which befell Sapper Naivalurua and Corporal Gaulder.
Although the low oxygen and high carbon dioxide levels due to oxidation in the coal hold were blamed for the accident, the army and navy could have avoided the disaster.
“Despite the instructions contained in the army operational manual, the staff sergeant had not been given sufficient information or guidance, nor had the naval search team leader fully appreciated the lack of marine knowledge experience of the army search team.
“Both the army and the navy had a mutual respect for each other’s professionalism, and therefore neither explored the other’s knowledge or capability.
“The army’s failure to provide Working in Confined Spaces (WICS) training to all members of the team was due to an operational command decision.
“These teams are expected to be ready to attempt what can be highly dangerous searches in an alien environment.
“By not equipping them fully for those operations, they are exposed to unnecessary and avoidable risks.
“These risks can be substantially reduced by ensuring that all team members are properly trained before being exposed to search operations.”