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Court convicts British ferry crew for fatal crash

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Court convicts British ferry crew for fatal crash
Paul Le Romancer, (L), ex-captain of the 'Condor Vitesse', and former first mate Yves Tournon (R) in court in June. Photo: Charly Triballeau/AFP
18:08 CEST+02:00
A French court on Wednesday handed a manslaughter conviction to the captain and first mate of a British ferry, who chatted about US actor Halle Berry just before the vessel crashed into a fishing boat in the English Channel, killing its skipper.

The captain and first mate of a British ferry that crashed into a fishing boat at high speed, killing its skipper, were convicted of manslaughter by a French court on Wednesday.

But the two Frenchmen were handed suspended sentences, upsetting the victim's widow who said they should have gone to jail.

The court in the Normandy town of Coutances handed former captain Paul Le Romancer, 59, an 18-month suspended sentence and first mate Yves Tournon, 48, a 12-month suspended sentence.

The court had heard that the "Condor Vitesse" catamaran, owned by Britain's Condor Ferries, had been travelling at high speed in thick fog when it crashed into the fishing boat on March 28, 2011.

Evidence from France's BEA maritime authority revealed that the captain and first mate had been distracted before the crash – discussing the Halle Berry film "Catwoman" and drugs testing – and did not pay enough attention to their radar.

Prosecutors said the pair had also deactivated the ship's anti-collision system and had not turned on its fog horn.

The collision took place in the English Channel, between the French port of Saint Malo and the island of Jersey.

The 86.6-metre (285-foot) catamaran sliced the 9.3-metre (30-foot) fishing boat in two, killing its captain Philippe Lesaulnier, a 42-year-old father of four.

The boat's two other crew members were fished out of the sea unharmed.

'This is ridiculous. It's like you can kill someone and nothing happens'

An investigation by France's BEA maritime authority noted that the captain and first mate had carried out "almost-continuous conversations unconnected with the operations of the vessel" which created "an atmosphere that was hardly compatible with the concentration needed to pilot a high-speed vessel in foggy conditions."

Transcripts of the conversation, recorded on the bridge and released in a BEA report, showed the crew chatting about films and drugs in the time leading up to the collision.

"Last night I watched Catwoman on television. I'm an idiot because after that I didn't sleep well," the captain is recorded as saying on the transcript a few minutes before the collision, referring to the 2004 film starring Berry.

The first officer replied: "Catwoman?"   

"She was jumping everywhere like a cat," the captain said. "She's bloody beautiful. She was wearing a sexy outfit."

The conversation later turned to how long certain drugs would remain present in the body and jokes about the first mate forgetting his glasses, before an alarm indicated the collision.

In tears after Wednesday's verdict was announced, the victim's widow Delphine Lesaulnier said the court's decision was unacceptable.

"This is ridiculous, it's nothing at all," she said. "It's like you can kill someone, destroy a family and nothing happens."

Prosecutors had called for Le Romancer to be sentenced to a year in prison and for Tournon to face six months.

Coutances prosecutor Renaud Gaudeul said his office had not decided yet whether to appeal the sentences but was "satisfied" that a guilty verdict had been delivered.

Condor Ferries, based on the British island of Guernsey, was not itself prosecuted.

Le Romancer and Tournon were also ordered to pay a combined €8,000 ($10,600) in damages to the fishing boat captain's widow, €3,000 ($3,990) to each of his children and €2,000 ($2,660) to each of the other two fishermen who had been on the boat at the time of the crash.

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