Diving boat boss Ronald MacNeil admits safety breach

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The skipper of a boat has admitted a safety failure which led to the death of a diver who was fishing for razor clams off the Fife coast.

Ronald MacNeil, 55, from Leven, admitted failing to ensure there was a standby frogman poised to help when Graeme Mackie entered the water.

Mr Mackie, 31, resurfaced in distress and shouting for help just a minute into his first dive in the Forth.

The incident happened on 11 June 2011. Sentence was deferred until 29 July.

After getting into difficulties, the father-of-one, from Tranent, East Lothian, sank unconscious to the river bed.

Dunfermline Sheriff Court heard that MacNeil jumped in to the sea, 600 metres off Methil Harbour in a bid to rescue Mr Mackie.

He was eventually recovered and airlifted to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, where he was pronounced dead.

MacNeil had been due to face trial accused of being responsible for a series of health and safety failings that led to the tragedy.

‘Serious breach’

However, Louise Beattie, prosecuting, accepted a plea to a single failing, not having a standby diver who could have gone to Mr Mackie’s aid in an emergency, in consequence of which Mr Mackie drowned.

She said it was “a serious breach”.

The court was told the “Rob Roy” had been involved in electro-fishing, a practice where a generator on the ship sends charges to electrodes trailed on the seabed, shocking shellfish to rise to the surface of the sandy bottom, where they can be collected.

However, the depute fiscal said there was no evidence this was a factor in Mr Mackie’s death, which was caused by drowning.

The court heard Mr Mackie had previously been employed as a welder and had undertaken “an intensive underwater dive course”.

Ms Beattie, a specialist health and safety prosecutor, said Mr Mackie’s ambition was to eventually become an underwater welder, and that he had advertised himself as a trainee shellfish diver online, prompting MacNeil, a fisherman with many years’ experience, to get in touch.

The depute fiscal said both Mr Mackie’s father and brother were not aware that he had any previous commercial diving experience.

Mouth piece removal

Ms Beattie said MacNeil had checked Mr Mackie’s diving equipment and was satisfied everything was fine before allowing him into the water.

In order to know when to start the electrodes for electro-fishing, it was decided that Mr Mackie would remove his mouth piece and the surfacing of the bubbles would indicate he was ready to start fishing.

The court heard that after entering the water, Mr Mackie re-surfaced about “10 to 15 seconds later in distress”.

Miss Beattie added that a dive computer had calculated that from the time Mr Mackie had entered the water to the time he was discovered, was 24 minutes.

MacNeil could be jailed for a maximum of two years under health and safety and diving and work regulations.

He is the second boatman in four months to be convicted over safety failings surrounding the death of a diver while electro-fishing for shellfish in the Firth of Forth.

In March, Guthrie Melville, 60, owner of the 26-foot “Solstice”, was jailed for nine months of contravening health and safety regulations which led to the death of James Irvine, 42.

The father-of-two got into difficulties in Largo Bay, Fife, on 24 March 2011, also while harvesting razor clams.

The Solstice was also based at Methil Docks.

A spokesman for Mr Mackie’s family said: “We note the plea which is an admission, finally, of guilt and responsibility for what happened.”

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