INVESTIGATIONS were continuing today into a marine accident which left a gaping hole in the historic Hythe Pier - but was just minutes from causing disaster.

Marchwood based merchant dredger the Donald Redford smashed into the pier in Southampton Water shortly after 6pm on Saturday as hundreds of Saints football fans returned to the Waterside from the match with Manchester City at St Mary's.

One of the Hythe-Southampton ferries had just docked at the pier and the electric train which takes passengers along the 19th-century structure had travelled down the pier just minutes before the accident.

A full search and rescue operation was mounted by the Coastguard after initial reports suggested there were foot passengers on the pier at the time of the collision.

A helicopter from Lee-on-the-Solent, using an infra-red camera, Hamble's inshore rescue craft, the Calshot lifeboat and Southampton Coastguard Rescue Team were all scrambled and searched until 9.26pm.

A coastguard spokesman said: "The timing of it was critical. There were a lot of football supporters who had got off the ferry. Five minutes earlier and it could have had the train which would have been an absolute disaster.

"The ferry hadn't long docked at the pier and although the train was at the other end we were not initially sure as to whether there were any people walking up the pier or anglers on it."

A further search of the shoreline area between the pier and Hythe's Shore Road was also mounted by Hampshire police officers yesterday morning but police confirmed nothing had been found and there were no reports of casualties or missing persons.

The dredger smashed into the pier from the Hythe Marina side of Southampton Water leaving a huge stretch of twisted metal just over halfway along the structure.

Police said the cause of the accident was unknown but the 37-year-old master of the dredger was detained after the incident and released on police bail after joint inquiries conducted by the Southampton Harbourmaster's unit and the Coastguard.

The Donald Redford had to be re-floated on a high tide and was subsequently detained by the Marine Accident Board as part of the investigation.

Yesterday the Harbourmaster's office refused to comment on the incident.

Firefighters from Hythe, Hardley and Eastleigh plus a special equipment unit from St Mary's, Southampton, were sent to the scene along with police and ambulance crews after first reports said that there were people in the water.

Ferry back in business

FERRY services from Hythe to Southampton were back in business within hours of Saturday's accident that put Hythe Pier out of action.

Peter Lay, director of White Horse Ferries - which operates the ferries and owns the pier - said the company was currently operating from Hythe Marina and was intending to lay on a bus shuttle service between the pier and marina for passengers.

And he pledged: "We will do the best job we can with the resources and infrastructure available to us."

The company, which carries over 650,000 passengers a year on the Hythe-Southampton route, was yesterday waiting for the Marine Safety Agency to inspect the Hythe Marina facilities and signal the all-clear for them to continue to be used.

But Mr Lay said: "The most important issue is that no one was hurt as a result of the collision.

"We were operating two ferries at the time because of the number of passengers due to Southampton playing at home.

"The last vessel, Hotspur IV, had discharged 24 passengers prior to the collision and all of these passengers were either off the Hythe Pier or on the landward side and well away from the point of collision."

He said nobody had been trapped at the other end of the pier - apart from the crew of the Hotspur IV who were taken off by launch.

Mr Lay added: "We don't know the cause and couldn't comment on that. It is being investigated by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch and the Marine Safety Agency, Hampshire Police Marine Unit and the Port Authority."

The director said the company needed to survey the whole length of the pier but a visual inspection suggested that either side of the 80ft damaged section appeared sound.

The company's intention would be to repair the damage with all haste, but there were a number of piles that had been damaged.

Mr Lay said: "It is a relatively simple structure, It is a question of scheduling the works and how quickly we can mobilise marine plant to replace the damaged piles and to fabricate and replace the tie bar structures below decks and then re-deck the pier."

Asked about cost, he said: "Anything of a marine nature tends not to be cheap."

But he added that the company's insurers had been informed, together with the insurers of the operators of the dredger.

Mr Lay said: "Safety is a matter we take extremely seriously and, thankfully, nobody was injured as a result of this incident. The safety record of the Hythe ferry service is very good.

"We have an extremely good relationship with the Port Authority and we will work with the Marine Safety Agency and the Marine Accident Investigation Branch to understand how this happened and how we can minimise the risk of it happening again."

Hythe-based secretary for White Horse Ferries Sarah Marsden told the Daily Echo that the pier had been cut in half and there was a gap of about 80ft.

She said: "It happened at 6.10pm. We had just got the last of the football supporters off."