Sailors aboard HMS Argyll have saved 27 people from a container ship after its cargo caught fire.
The frigate was heading back to Plymouth when it responded to a mayday call in the middle of the night off the coast of France.
It took about eight hours to save the crew members, and the Royal Navy said the victims “were fighting a losing battle against the flames and abandoning ship”.
They fled the 28,000-tonne merchant ship in a lifeboat which smashed into heavy seas as it launched – and one navy official said it was “bobbing around like a cork in a bathtub”.
Despite the “very difficult sea conditions”, HMS Argyll successfully launched her sea boat – nudging the lifeboat against the frigate’s side so the crew of the Grande America could be brought aboard.
Lieutenant Commander Dave Tetchner said: “The conditions were horrendous – the vessels were rolling at 30 degrees which made it extremely hairy getting the sailors safely on board.
“Royal Marines were on the ropes hauling people up.”
The 27 rescued sailors were taken to the French port of Brest. Although none of them suffered life-threatening injuries, some require hospital treatment.
Lt Cdr Tetchner added: “It was pretty awful for them – they’d had to fight a fire in dreadful seas. Every one of them suffered smoke inhalation.
“Then they faced the prospect of abandoning ship and then their lifeboat failed. It was pretty awful all round and they were shocked.
“You see container ships like this every day when you’re sailing around the world. What you do not see is one in flames – it was a dreadful sight.”
Grande America, which was carrying cars and container ships, was still on fire when HMS Argyll left the scene at about 5am on Monday – about 150 miles away from Brest.
The Italian-registered vessel was heading from Casablanca to Hamburg when the blaze broke out at 8pm on Sunday night.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson commended the crew and said that the ship’s “swift and selfless response to very dangerous situation in difficult conditions undoubtedly saved 27 lives”.
HMS Argyll was on her way home after spending nine months in the Asia-Pacific at the time of the distress call.
The commanding officer of HMS Argyll, Cdr Toby Shaughnessy, added: “I am incredibly proud of my ship’s company and the way they performed in this rescue effort in the most challenging of conditions.
“Without doubt this was a near run thing. The conditions were on the limit for recovery and this could just as easily been a different result.
“It was an exceptional team effort and there’s a great feeling on board after a successful result – everyone was saved.”
(c) Sky News 2019: Royal Navy saves 27 sailors from burning ship in ‘horrendous’ seas