08.30am, 8 June, 2007
The worst of the unforgettable storm that pulverised Newcastle seemed over but news about a coal ship about to beach off Newcastle’s Nobby’s Beach meant it had really just begun. Gripping eyewitness accounts of the ship sliding her way onto Newcastle’s doorstep were all over the radio as I headed to the beach through crowds of on-lookers.
I phoned Anders Egehus, the Australia Managing Director of Svitzer, “Get ready for a media onslaught if you’re chosen to handle the salvage response,” I said. It would be quite a ride given that the spectacle was there for any camera to pick up.
With my ex-journo juices flowing, I also called the Chief of Staff desk at National Nine News in Sydney where I’d been an on-road reporter for many years. The legendary reporter Peter Harvey happened to pick up, “Yes Matty,” he said in his assuasive tuba-voice, “the chopper’s on its way.” “Can you see the ship?” Pete asked as I got closer to Nobby’s Beach. I looked through the windscreen at the foamy puffs of water lashing high over the deck.
“Oh, can I what…”
The hull of the 40,000 tonne Pasha Bulker was strikingly red. A garish lipstick-coloured lump with white accommodation quarters jutting from the stern like high density home units - in the middle of Newcastle’s main beach.
The Westpac helicopter had rescued all crew from the vessel and with forecasts that the weather would ease the Pasha Bulker appeared to be firmly grounded – for now.
Anders and I went into the boardroom of Svitzer’s Newcastle tug base where I met Drew Shannon, who was handling shore-side logistics. Drew warned that a re-float attempt might or might not work. Any attempt would be time consuming, weeks, months maybe. Equipment and personnel would come from across the globe. You didn’t just press a few buttons in such situations and see the beached ship off.
It was agreed that Gary Webb, Newcastle Port Corporation CEO, and his media team would continue briefing journalists and providing all-important visuals such as oil booms being placed on the beach. I’d handle media enquiries on behalf of Svitzer. Naturally we’d have to work closely and be on the same page in terms of facts and developments, especially in an environment where things could change frequently.
One of the largest industrial helicopters in Australia was secured to transport salvage equipment onto the Pasha Bulker. It pulsated back and forth from a water-side equipment assembly zone at Carrington. A ‘super-tug’ anchor handling barge sourced from Asia was steaming for Newcastle. These were important visuals, to show the media and the community that things were happening. More salvage folks arrived from interstate and overseas – some 30 all up.
The wrinkling on the port-side of the hull gave away that the vessel was straining from the constant push of waves. The salvage team knew she would, in all likelihood, only hold up for so long. Yes, she might break up. A priority was pumping the on-board fuel oil off, yucky stuff that would leave a hell of a mess if it ended up on the beach or coast.
With every passing day, the media became hungrier for something new. The journos wanted an expert from the ship. And so, nearly two weeks after the grounding, it was decided to wheel out Drew Shannon.
Drew’s first media performance - after multiple practice sessions - was all but flawless. Not bad for a guy with no prior interview experience asked to stand in front of a global media pack. He was straight-talking, no-nonsense and sure-footed. He exuded professionalism, honestly and credibility. The media warmed to him and this was instrumental in forming an indelible impression with the public. Drew basically said, “We can’t promise a good outcome, but we’ve got the best people and the best possible plan in play. We’re doing our best folks….” It bought time and reduced pressure when the media may have gone for the jugular.
The first re-float attempt on the evening of 28 June failed due to a snapping tug cable, scepticism amongst the journalists lifted after the second attempt failed.
A comical moment unfolded when Gary Webb, Minister Tripodi, their staff and I trod down the headland track for the nightly media briefing. My mobile phone rang. It was Drew Shannon, on board the Pasha Bulker. “We might have oil in the water,” he said. “How much?” I asked, feeling my heart buck. “Hard to tell. We can just smell oil. Might be nothing.”
The media and public would crucify us if there was an oil spill and we’d said nothing about it. If it turned out there was no oil in the water, so what? False alarm. It just had to be clearly explained that identifying oil in the ocean at night is extremely difficult, so we wouldn’t know what we were dealing with until sunrise. And so, Minister Tripodi and Gary Webb stood before the camera lights piercing the night and calmly said, “well, there might be some… oil in the water.” There were gasps. The journos went live on their phones and the TV link trucks cranked up. An “OIL SPILL!” it was quickly confirmed there was no oil (or a miniscule amount at worst). So, the good-news angle of the morning, bravo, was that there was no oil spill at Newcastle!
No one in the inner sanctum will forget the evening of 2 July. With the tide high and three tug boats roaring to pull the Pasha Bulker free, exasperation fell over the media pack on the headland. I sensed it was a tipping point, a moment where they’d attack. Gary Webb and Minister Tripodi had the unenviable task of fronting the cameras again. The questioning was pointed. Then, with the Pasha Bulker as the backdrop, a lone female voice simply said “…she’s moving.” Every set of eyes focussed on the glowing Pasha Bulker.
And wasn’t she just. Quickly. Literally flinging away from the beach. Someone said “Get out of the way!” and a confused-looking Minister Tripodi hobbled from his interview position so the cameras could get the money shot of the Pasha Bulker getting the hell out of there. There was clapping, cheering and hugging. Down in Newcastle car horns tooted. The Pasha Bulker was gone in a matter of moments, towed into the inky Pacific. The media conference resumed. “So, what was the secret of the success, Minister?” “Well…. it was a flexible plan.” Everyone just laughed, including the Minister. There was “bad news”, the ship’s rudder was jammed in the rocks off the beach, meaning the re-float was only a 99 percent success. That created a few chuckles.
Some months later Drew Shannon visited my office in Sydney and handed over a palm-sized chunk of rusty steel as heavy as a brick. “A memento to say thanks for the professionalism.” That unsightly piece of the Pasha Bulker’s rudder sits on my desk as I write this, ten years later.
Matthew Watson is Managing Director of Repute Communications and Associates and a former Nine Network journalist. He is one of Australia’s foremost media and crisis management specialists. Matt is Navigate Response’s network partner in Australia.
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