by Kate Kelland, Reuters
Scores of people flocked to the site of a shipwreck on the southern English coast on Monday to scavenge among beached containers for cargo including a BMW motorcycle, shoes and wine, police said.
As the coastguard fought to contain the stricken ship's oil, locals scoured a debris-strewn beach for goods washed up from the MSC Napoli.
The container ship was abandoned by its crew after being holed during storms last Thursday. It was deliberately run aground to stop it from sinking.
More than 200 people roamed the beach, littered with wooden barrels and large metal containers filled with everything from car parts to nappies.
There was at least one blue BMW motorcycle, still in its cardboard wrapping, worth some 15,000 pounds ($29,610).
Police said they wouldn't stop people from taking goods from Branscombe Beach in Devon. Officers handed out leaflets explaining that they must report anything they find to the authorities.
"We're not stopping people because we've got no powers to do so," a police spokesman said. "The leaflets explain their responsibilities."
Under the Merchant Shipping Act, salvage remains the property of the original owner. Anyone who finds washed up goods must contact a government official, called the receiver of the wreck, within 28 days.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency said people could be charged with theft if they failed to report the salvage they take from the beach.
"It belongs to somebody," a spokesman said. "They have a legal obligation to report their finds." People are allowed to store the salvage at home while the owner decides what to do with the salvaged goods.
Coastguards said some of the containers on board the ship held potentially dangerous materials.
The ship's owners have appointed a private security company to guard the beached containers, the coastguard said.
The Napoli is listing at between 18 and 25 degrees and has already lost waste oil and more than 200 of its 2,400 containers into the sea.
"A sheen of oil has been sighted coming from the MSC Napoli which is suspected to come from waste oils in the flooded engine spaces," the Coastguard said in a statement.
About 200 metric tons of oil are thought to have leaked from the ship. The sheen has spread to about 8 km (5 miles) but is "breaking up and dissipating" and did not pose a major environmental threat, it said.
Coastguards said salvage teams hoped to be able to start pumping out the remaining 3,000 tons of fuel oil in the ship's tanks on Monday, but experts warned this may take several days.
"We have two vessels on charter now to receive the oil, and pumping should start today," said Robin Middleton, the government's representative for maritime salvage.
"But this is a very viscous product," he told BBC Radio. "It's almost like a sludge, so what they have to do is heat it and remove it slowly. It could probably take the best part of a week."
The British-flagged Napoli, built in 1991, was bound from Belgium to Portugal when it was holed. Its 26 crew took to a lifeboat and were winched to safety by a helicopter.
In 2001, the same ship, then named the Normandie, ran onto a coral reef in the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Sumatra, heavily loaded and at full speed.
It remained stuck for several weeks before being towed away for repairs that included welding more than 3,000 tons of metal onto the hull.
(Additional reporting by Peter Griffiths)
Copyright 2007 Reuters News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.