Published: 14:12, 28 May 2020
| Updated: 18:08, 28 May 2020
The Ministry of Defence is offering to pay £5 million 'danger money' to any company prepared to hack off the rusting masts of an American 'bomb ship.'
The SS Richard Montgomery has remained a danger to shipping in the Thames Estuary since it sank off Sheerness on August 20, 1944, loaded with explosives. It still has 1,400 tonnes of bombs on board.
The Salvage and Marine Operations (Salmo) Team at the Ministry of Defence has asked companies to tender for the delicate job of removing the distinctive masts which have acted as a warning to shipping for the past 75 years.
It follows the findings of the latest underwater survey of the wreck which was published last year.
A post on the Government's website says a contract notice for the work, subject to funding, was ready to be issued last month with the intention of awarding the contract in September.
Although many residents on the Isle of Sheppey and across the water in Southend have felt uncomfortable living in the shadow of the ship, many more would be sad to lose the masts which are a popular talking point with tourists.
Veteran sailor Tim Bell from Minster said: "I can see the sense in cutting the masts down because they are starting to collapse and rust and could fall onto the deck below where there are still 2,000 cases of cluster bombs.
"But it will also be sad to see an end of an era. The masts are a Sheppey icon. Generations of Islanders have looked at them from the seafront or taken boat trips around them. Soon there will be nothing to see."
He added: "Whichever firm is picked, they are going to have be very gentle with this one."
Every year the Government's Maritime and Coastguard Agency commissions a survey to check how dangerous the deadly cargo is.
Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP Gordon Henderson said: "The overall situation has not changed. The non-intervention policy that has been in place for several decades under successive governments is still the best option.
"However, the wreck will continue to be monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week and alternative options will be considered should deterioration of the superstructure make necessary a change in policy."
He said: "In the nine years I have been involved in these briefings, the standard of the surveys has improved inmeasurably as increasingly sophisticated equipment has become available. The latest data follows survey work in 2017 using multi-beam and laser scanning equipment."
Three areas showed structural changes since 2016.
Deck plating around Hold 2 had dropped by 60cm; the bridge deck area had continued to collapse and a split in the deck in the rear section had subsided by 20cm.
Of 96 features checked, 22 had changed and the amount of objects scattered around the wreck on the seabed has increased from 66 to 72.
The Richard Montgomery was built in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1943 to take vital supplies to Europe and sailed across the Atlantic in convoy.
The captain was ordered to anchor off the Great Nore but the water was too shallow for the fully loaded vessel. As the tide fell, the ship dragged its anchor and went aground on a sandbank, breaking its back.
Bad weather, and increased danger as the ship settled, forced stevedores and Navy divers to abandon attempts to unload it.
There is now a safety zone around the wreck which can be seen clearly at low tide.
Some believe the explosives, mainly phosphor bombs, are still unsafe and could cause a tsunami if they go off which could flood parts of Sheerness and Southend.
The Ministry of Defence has been asked for a comment.