A MASSIVE two-and-a-half year operation to clear up a container ship which grounded off the Jurassic Coast 10 years ago was a 'turning point' in the way wrecks are dealt with, authorities said.

A decade on from the MSC Napoli saga, in which saw a ship loaded with goods beached on the coast – sparking a £120 million multi-agency recovery and salvage operation – officials have used the opportunity to again paid tribute to those involved in the clear-up, including an army of volunteers who supported authorities.

The Napoli set a 'benchmark' in maritime incidents and is used by maritime officials in training exercises to demonstrate how best to respond to coastal emergencies.

The 62,000-tonne Napoli was on its way to South Africa when its hull suffered ‘catastrophic damage’ in a violent storm off Brittany on January 18, 2007.

The ship put out a distress call and all 26 crew were airlifted to safety in a rescue operation co-ordinated by UK coastguards.

Force 11 northerly winds made it impossible for the vessel to shelter along the French coast, so the French government asked the UK government if the crippled ship could be towed across the Channel into UK waters. The Napoli was still afloat, but listing badly.

The ship was carrying 2,300 containers and 3,800 tonnes of oil.

The initial plan was to take it to Portland Port.

Due to sinking fears as it was brought up the Channel, a last-minute decision was made to bring it into Lyme Bay where it could be beached.

As a salvage operation was launched including a pollution response, thousands of people descended on the east Devon village of Branscombe when the listing ship with a crack in the hull clearly visible was grounded off the beach on January 20.

An inquiry later concluded the deliberate beaching was a correct decision as it almost certainly averted a ‘pollution catastrophe’ in the Channel.

Not all visitors to Branscombe were sightseers – some of the containers which washed ashore were plundered by scavengers.

The disruption and disturbance to the normally peaceful village was made worse by narrow country lanes that soon became clogged with vehicles as peopel flocked to the coast.

The assorted cargo being carried in the thousands of containers on Napoli included shampoo, wine barrels, motorcycles, car engines, chocolate, Polish bibles, vodka, perfume, and dog biscuits.

Cargo from broken containers, especially lighter plastics, were carried on tides as far as East Sussex.

As the sheer scale of the operation became apparent, the government launched its National Contingency Plan for Marine Pollution. The Maritime & Coastguard Agency established a Salvage Control Unit to deal with the salvage operation and a Marine Response Centre to manage the pollution response at sea.

Meanwhile, an Environment Group was hastily convened to minimise the environmental impact and help co-ordinate a land-based response. Organisations represented included the Environment Agency, Natural England, Health Protection Agency, Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, and the RSPB.

First priority was to remove 3,800 tonnes of diesel, bunker fuel and hydraulic oil from the Napoli. The ship had lost about 10 tonnes of oil shortly after arriving at Branscombe but winds blew most of it offshore.

The cargo absorbed a lot of oil - dog biscuits lost from one of the ship’s damaged containers, proved particularly effective.

First priority was to remove 3,800 tonnes of diesel, bunker fuel and hydraulic oil from the Napoli.

Salvage experts worked round the clock to remove oil from the vessel. Divers drilled into the hull and emptied oil from all of the ship's fuel tanks within eight weeks of beaching. The operation was helped by fine weather.

Some oil did escape and over the following weeks 1,000 seabirds were collected and sent to the RSPCA for treatment. Six hundred were later released after being cleaned and nursed back to health. An estimated 302 tonnes of oil was lost during the incident. Most was carried eastwards and was washed up on local beaches – some up to 20 miles away.

A total of 114 containers were lost from the deck of the ship. 80 were washed ashore. Most were later recovered.

The Environment Agency and CEFAS carried out monitoring throughout the salvage operation.

The second stage of the salvage operation involved the removal of containers.

A full assessment was made of the cargo that included 159 containers of dangerous goods. Large cranes were brought over from Holland on a barge and the containers were then taken by barge to Portland for assessment, recycling or disposal.

By the summer of 2007 it was decided to try to re-float the Napoli. Although it was successfully re-floated, the vessel was too badly damaged to be towed so it was dismantled instead using explosives.

The bow section was towed to a shipyard in Belfast while the stern was left at Branscombe to be dismantled. The wreck was battered by winter storms in 2008, but was eventually cut up and taken by barge to Rotterdam.

A scan of the seabed showed that by July 2009, every last trace of the Napoli had been removed.

Reflecting on events, Julian Wardlaw from the Environment Agency who chaired the Environment Group said: "The grounding of the Napoli was such an unusual event we had to be very innovative. We were fortunate in that the Environment Group was well supported by its partners."

Mr Wardlaw said the grounding of the ship was the ‘least worst option.’

Hugh Shaw, the current Secretary of States Representative (SOSREP) said: "Fortunately, shipping incidents as serious as the Napoli are rare within UK waters. The scale of the response and resources required to salvage this ship were immense.

"The strategy was unusual in that we deliberately grounded the ship in Lyme Bay to mitigate against a potentially far more serious situation. Once the vessel was in the shallow, sheltered waters of Lyme Bay, the salvage operation was at infinitely more manageable."

He added: "Failure to take action would have led to a significant risk of the vessel sinking in the open seas of the English Channel which could have led to long term environmental consequences as well as navigation safety issues."

Leader of Devon County Council John Hart said the grounding of the Napoli was "arguably a turning point that prompted a change in the way such incidents are dealt with by the authorities".

He added: "Initial confusion over who’s responsibility was what, led to the authorities playing catch-up to some extent as thousands of people descended on Branscombe to pick through the containers’ contents."

Cllr Hart said although such incidents may happen again, emergency services and local authorities are now 'better placed' to respond quickly and with greater efficiency.

He added: "On the tenth anniversary, it is also a time to remember the many local volunteers who, alongside the local councils and agencies, worked hard to return this iconic stretch of coastline back to its former beauty for the enjoyment of everyone."