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Sunken ship with thousands of bombs on board 'could collapse'

By Gemma Constable

The wreck of the American cargo ship SS Richard Montgomery (picture by Barry Crayford)

Masts from the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery are still visible off the coast of Sheerness. Picture: Barry Crayford


A ship that sunk off the Kent coast with thousands of bombs on board is deteriorating more quickly than in recent years, experts have warned.

SS Richard Montgomery sank off Sheerness in 1944 after it became grounded on a bank and broke in two.

A salvage operation had to be abandoned and the wreck of the American liberty ship remains packed with a mixture of explosives.

They include more than 2,000 cases of cluster fragmentation bombs, nearly 600 500lb semi armour piercing bombs and at least 1,000 additional 1,000lb bombs.

An explosion could trigger a tidal wave up to one metre high, destroying some coastal communities and causing as much as £1 billion worth of damage.

A full report on the condition of the wreck is due to be published by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), which is responsible for surveillance, in the next eight weeks.

This week, a summary of the report, based on surveys carried out in 2008 and 2009, was released by the Department for Transport following a Freedom of Information Act request.

There were greater levels of deterioration than has been seen in previous years, which may suggest the rate of its decline in some areas of the hull has accelerated.

The results point towards significant collapse and/or loss of munitions becoming a more realistic possibility in the medium term, although there appears to be no imminent danger.

Initial results of the 2010 survey do not identify any significant changes or deterioration since 2009.

The surveys revealed new holes and extension of cracks in the hull, but the orientation, list and pitch of the two sections of the wreck have not changed since 2006.

The MCA summary says: "Whilst much of the hull appears to be deteriorating relatively slowly, one of the main concerns is that these specific areas of accelerated deterioration might lead to structural collapse or allow the escape of munitions.

"Although some munitions studies have been carried out, these are not sufficient to predict with any certainty what the effect of significant structural collapse would be on the munitions cargo.

"It has always been noted that there may come a point when the risks associated with non-intervention will become greater than the risks associated with a carefully planned intervention operation (such as dealing with escaping cargo material, or imminent or actual significant structural collapse).

"Whilst significant structural collapse does not appear to be imminent, surveys suggest that this prospect is getting closer."

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