IMAGE: BEACHED SHIP
British Maritime & Coastguard Agency  /  via AP
The beached cargo ship MSC Napoli sits Saturday a mile off the coast near Sidmouth, Great Britain.
msnbc.com news services
updated 1/23/2007 11:01:20 AM ET 2007-01-23T16:01:20

Scavengers who made off with motorcycles, wine barrels and other booty washed ashore from a damaged cargo ship off southern England may be arrested if they don't return the merchandise, authorities said on Tuesday.

Britain’s coast guard, meanwhile, finished repairing a fuel tank that had leaked as much as 50 tons of oil into the water in an area designated as a World Heritage site. At least 900 seabirds were found covered in oil, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

“They do need to take the oil off the ship, and that is the priority,” said Joanne Groenenberg, Maritime and Coast Guard Agency spokeswoman. The process was expected to take about a week.

Officials condemned the “abysmal behavior” of people who traveled miles to scour the wreckage strewn along a beach in Devon, saying they were no more than looters.

“It’s a complete mess ... it looks like a landfill site,” Groenenberg said. “If they had left the stuff in the containers, the cleanup may been easier.”

Up to 1,000 people defied gale force winds overnight to pick over the containers and barrels washed up from the MSC Napoli after it was deliberately run aground to stop it sinking at sea during storms.

“Frankly, the scenes that I witnessed late last night on the beach were despicable,” Coast Guard officer Mark Rodaway told a news conference.

“I personally witnessed young children sat on the beach in the middle of the night, gale force conditions, crashing seas, not supervised while their parents blatantly looted things.”

Police acknowledged that the scavengers’ activity was legal as long as they returned the cargo to its lawful owner, but attempted a police blockade anyway — with limited success.

“No matter what people think about it, there have been no public order offenses, and people are going about it in a good-natured way,” said Devon and Cornwall police spokesman Terry Hodgson.

From motorcycles to Bibles
Waves of people, some with children or walking their dogs, spent hours picking through the debris.

The free-for-all has been likened to the 1949 film “Whisky Galore!”, based on a true story about Scottish islanders who gathered thousands of bottles of whisky from a sunken ship.

On Branscombe Beach, people hauled away everything from BMW motorcycles worth more than $23,000 to puppy food, Bibles and plastic bags full of disposable diapers.

“Around 15 BMW motorbikes were carried off the beach last night,” said said Constable Steve Spearitt.

Others grabbed new car parts, including gear boxes, wing mirrors and steering wheels. Police said some items had already appeared for sale on the Internet.

“Those people that are doing that at the moment are liable to be arrested,” said Sharon Newman, of Devon and Cornwall Police.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) vowed to get tough on the scavengers, prosecuting those who have failed to notify the authorities about the goods they found on the beach.

Under Britain’s shipping laws, salvage remains the property of the original owner. Anyone who finds washed up goods must contact a government official, called the Receiver of the Wreck, within 28 days.

“If people are holding ... wreck that they are not authorized to hold, then warrants for entry into their premises and houses may be obtained,” the agency’s Robin Middleton said. He described people’s behavior as “absolutely abysmal.”

'Family heirlooms' among debris
Some of the containers were carrying the possessions of people emigrating to South Africa, officials said.

“Personal belongings ... were being rifled through and strewn on the beach,” Rodaway said. “I spoke to a Swedish lady this morning who had witnessed on television her family heirlooms being cast aside.”

Locals said there was a long tradition of people scouring the coast after shipwrecks.

“It is clearing up the beach, and it is part of the beach culture,” one unnamed woman told the Independent newspaper.

Private security guards are to secure the beach, while the MCA is seeking powers to keep people away from the area.

Heavy lifting equipment is to be moved down to the beach to begin removing the containers and other goods.

Yearlong cleanup possible
The Napoli is listing at between 18 and 25 degrees and has already lost waste oil and more than 100 of its 2,400 containers into the sea.

The British cargo ship was deliberately run aground close to the Devonshire resort of Sidmouth, 165 miles southwest of London, after it was damaged during a storm Thursday. Its crew of 26 was rescued, but at least 200 containers went overboard, including three carrying toxic materials such as battery acid and perfume.

“It’s a challenging and difficult operation: The ship is listing, the decks are slippery, the hull has cracked, and it’s resting on a sandbank,” Groenenberg said, adding that over 200 coast guards were involved in the recovery operation.

Once the ship’s fuel is drained, work can begin plucking the containers off the deck using a crane before the ship itself could be removed, a process she said could take up to a year or longer.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Ship scavengers

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