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French courts hold investigation into death of Courtenay Allan
TWO brothers who have spent 11 years battling for the truth about their father’s death have travelled to France in the hope of finally getting answers in a top court.
Ben and Hayden Allan made an emotional journey to Le Havre in Normandy more than a decade after their father Courtenay died in a freak accident there on one of the world’s biggest container ships.
The 53-year-old died after plunging 60ft down a lift shaft on board the Orient Overseas Container Line (OOCL) vessel Montreal in the French port.
His family have spent the past ten years fighting to get to the bottom of how and why it happened and yesterday saw their efforts come to fruition when the company appeared in court to face prosecution by the French government.
Daily Echo reporter Maxwell Kusi-Obodum travelled to the French city with the former Southampton-based shipping bosses’ sons where they yesterday heard of the dramatic events that led to their father’s death.
Ben, 38, from Ashurst, bowed his head, while Hayden, 34, at one point wept as details were laid bare in the court room of the Tribunal de Grande Justice in the Palais De Justice.
The court heard how the OOCL senior executive had walked through an open elevator door and plummeted six floors from the bridge on to the top of a lift car.
Mr Allan suffered horrific internal injuries and died the following day in hospital.
The court heard how the loyal company employee of 37 years had been hosting a reception for key guests during the liner’s maiden voyage on the evening of July 3, 2003.
Both sons and brother Tristan, 36, have since his death been searching for the truth on a journey taking them to the Far East to ask the Chinese company’s leaders for answers and meetings with the Hong Kong Marine Department.
Yesterday their journey went full circle when the French Government began prosecuting the company in the same city the tragedy happened.
Authorities accuse OOCL of manslaughter by clumsiness, carelessness, inattention, negligence or breach of duty of care or safety, in this case of making changes in an elevator’s operation, causing unintentional death.
OOCL denies the charges.
Ben, a father of one, read an emotional statement to the court outlining the grief he and his brothers endured by prematurely losing their father while in their 20s.
He said: “As three young men our father would expect nothing more from us than to honour his memory.
“For over a decade we have tried to achieve justice for something that shouldn’t have happened.”
Hailing his father as a “passionate” employee he said: “Over the years OOCL has been far from transparent.
“There’s no proof that anybody had access to the lift shaft other than OOCL.
“All we want is answers to the truth and justice as a family.”
The court heard statements from a report by leading lift accident reconstruction expert David Cooper compiled a year after the tragedy.
Mr Cooper, from LECS UK Ltd, was commissioned by the family to inspect the lift.
The court heard he considered that the lift door safety circuit had “shorted out” , deceiving the controller the doors were working properly.
He also found someone had “removed” the device prior to an investigation into the incident.
He put the incident down to “human intervention”, the court heard.
Lammy Lee, speaking for OOCL, said there was evidence of air pressure which had previously caused the lift doors to open.
She said: “It isn’t considered the crew’s fault that it was malfunctioning.
“It was an inconvenience.”
But Ms Lee was unable to tell the court whether there was a policy of checking lift systems.
Engineering expert John Medhurst told the court someone may have deliberately put a short circuit in the door interlock system – a system used by technicians to open doors whenever they need to.
But he did not suspect the ship’s crew had done it.
He said: “The ship’s engineers at that stage didn’t have the right tools.”
Three French judges are expected to return a verdict on July 2.
HE rose from a humble shipping clerk to becoming one of OOCL’s most senior directors.
Poignantly, Courtenay Allan died doing the job he loved – just two years after surviving the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks.
The 53-year-old father-of-three started work as a shipping clerk in Bristol before moving to Southampton working for Dart Container Line in Canute Road, where he met his wife Beverley.
He later worked at the Furness Withy shipping company in Southampton and it was taken over by OOCL.
He served for 37 years there, even working at the company’s office in New York during the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001.
Evacuated while having a breakfast meeting at the bottom of the second tower he was covered in debris showering over a plaza he was running through, but miraculously survived.
Nicknamed ‘the Oracle’ and a ‘gentleman’ for his knowledge he went on to become the company’s transatlantic trades director.
A grandfather-of-three, he previously lived in West End but moved to Essex shortly before he died.
Courtenay, who had later divorced, had been due to remarry three weeks after his death.
His voyage on the Montreal was the first time he had been on a container ship despite all his years of service.
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