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What really happened to the Flag Theofano and her seven Maldivian crew?

What really happened to the Flag Theofano and her seven Maldivian crew?

The Greek cement carrier, Flag Theofano, was just one of many ships caught in a terrible storm in the Solent area on the 29th of January, 1990. The 324 feet long ship was constructed only 20 years prior, with a steel body, 1 diesel engine, single shaft, and capable of traveling at 14 knots. She was bound for Southampton after a short voyage from Le Havre with nineteen crew on board, seven of whom were native to the Maldives, and one of whom was named Ibrahim Hussein. 

Her Mysterious Disappearance into the Night 

The details of the events that occured with the Flag Theofano have been documented thoroughly now, but it was an incident that severely confused officials at the time. 

The Southampton port was unable to provide a berth for her that fateful evening, and recommended anchoring for the night off Bembridge, in St Helen’s Roads, which lay off the north east corner of the Isle of Wight. St Helen’s Roads is located in a fairly sheltered location due to the Isle of Wight, adjacent to the main Naval anchorage at Spithead, and has a strategic view over the Eastern Solent. The Master of the Flag Theofano, 44-year-old Captain John Pittas, agreed to seek shelter at the recommended anchorage at around 1730 hours that evening, sailing back the way they came through the raging storm. 

Come dawn, when the Southampton port attempted to get in radio contact with her to give the good news that berthing had been arranged, the Flag Theofano remained silent. A search was immediately carried out in the direction she was headed, through the still extremely rough weather conditions, but search and rescue crews were baffled to discover she had disappeared without a trace into the night. 

Even today, it is extremely unusual, even downright alarming, for a ship to disappear without any mayday calls, radio contact, or at the very least, being sighted by one of the many other ships in the area. 

The Hard Truth 

The search was expanded, other ships from around the area joined in, and 3 helicopters were called in to assist in the search. It didn’t take long for the mystery to be solved. The bodies of Captain Pittas and his Second Officer, Skaltsaris Harton, were discovered on the 30th of January near West Wittering, Sussex, and a lifeboat bearing the Flag Theofano’s name washed ashore at Hayling Island, Hampshire. An oil slick, debris, lifebuoys, and air bubbles were also spotted, about three miles off the Nab Tower, near Portsmouth, which was assumed to be the wreck. 

According to news sources, on 31st July 1990, Senior Coastguard Bob Woodwark said an ”object” thought to be the wreck was found in 36ft of water 3.5 miles off the coastline in the Solent, however, it was deemed impossible for divers to go down into the area to attempt rescue due to the location of the suspected wreck and the unrelenting storm. Seventeen crew members were still unaccounted for at this time, with two confirmed deceased. According to the report by the Coast Guard, the search for bodies was called off on the night of 30th January 1990, because of ”absolutely horrendous” weather conditions in the area, and the aforementioned Senior Coastguard Bob Woodwark was reported stating that ”For those seamen left in the water there is no hope whatsoever of them being found alive. It is now very unsafe for divers to go into the area where we believe the wreck to be.”

The situation was finally clear though, or as clear it could be without sending divers down to the location- she had gone down in the night, and it must have been quick for there not to have been any radio contact or eyewitnesses. 

Finding the Flag Theofano

Divers were sent down at the first break in the storm, and the ship was discovered exactly where the Coast Guard had estimated she would be. 

The Flag Theofano lay upside down on the seabed, 20 meters under the surface of the ocean,  very close to the main deepwater channel. Later reports indicate that she must have capsized and foundered due to the bad weather shifting the cargo in unexpected ways. No crew members, alive or dead, were discovered by divers at the site of the wreck. However, 3 more bodies of deceased crew members were found in the coming month in other nearby locations, one each on the 14th, 16th and 19th of February, 1990. Of the nineteen crew aboard the ship, only five bodies had ever been discovered. The true horror of what happened to the still missing fourteen crew members is not for the faint of heart. 

When the storm had subsided enough to safely allow divers to go down into the area, they found a solid concrete block surrounded by the hull of the ship. She had been carrying 4,000 tonnes of cement, and the cargo had shifted and solidified underwater, all over the upside down ship. Reports indicate that the incident that caused her to capsize occurred while the crew were likely asleep, and the prevailing theory is that the undiscovered bodies of the 14 crew members still lie inside the concrete tomb. 

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Six of those bodies are those of Maldivian crew members, whose names appear to have been lost to time. One name, however, has not been lost. 

Ibrahim Hussein – Able Seaman 

The story of Ibrahim Hussein’s life may have been similarly lost to the annexes of time, but his name and memory remains to this day. Ibrahim Hussein was born in the Maldives, on the 24th of April, 1970. His body was the last one of the five discovered. He was only 19 years old at the time of the disaster of the capsizing of the Flag Theofano and subsequent loss of all life, an incident still referred to as one of the worst Solent shipping tragedies in living history. 

While the remaining four crew members whose bodies were discovered following this disaster were returned to their native Greece, the body of Ibrahim Hussein was instead buried at an unmarked grave in Kingston Cemetery. According to news sources at that time, Ibrahim Hussein was granted a full muslim burial, with the local muslim community in Kingston coming together and conducting the necessary prayers and dua for his funeral rites. His unmarked grave stands to this day in the Kingston Cemetery, and an individual from the United Kingdom had recently shown interest in finding his relatives in the Maldives so they can arrange to have a proper headstone inscribed to mark the burial site of this young, unfortunate sailor. 

The Flag Theofano Today 

Referred to as “Dean Tail”, the wreck of the Flag Theofano is now a famous fishing and diving spot. The site is listed as an easy spot to find and dive, with north and south cardinal buoys marking the wreck and a mud and shell covered seabed. The fact that she is extremely intact, being a solid chunk of concrete lying on the seabed, makes her extremely easy to locate using basic fishfinder or echolocation rigs. It’s a popular spot for boats to feather for mackerel in the summer, as the area is reportedly teeming with marine life. 

The United Kingdom Government had previously attempted to move the wreck as it was deemed ‘a danger to shipping’ but the endeavor was cut short due to difficulties arising from the solidified status of the concrete cargo it was carrying. Further plans to attempt to move the wreck are reportedly in motion.

Author: mmj

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