On Jan 18th 2007 the Napoli, a british flagged container ship was on a voyage from Belgium to Portugal. In appalling weather, its engine room flooded and its crew had to be taken off by rescue helicopters. It was dragged to safety at Branscombe, on the East Devon Jurassic Coast, one of the UK's five World Heritage Sites, in an attempt to stop it breaking up at sea. On board were 2,400 containers, many of them containing hazardous materials, such as nickel and chemicals for use in cosmetics.

While a desperate rescue operation was under way to try to prevent ecological disaster a mile off the Devon coast, a scramble of a different kind was taking place...

The containers started to wash overboard, most of them containing goods such as car spares or new motorbikes but a some with battery acid, pesticides and other potential menaces to marine life.Several containers spilled open after smashing into waves and rocks, and debris started to build up along the shore. The public flocked to the beach to salvage the goods washed ashore. The authorities protested, arguing that failing to report what they'd taken is a criminal offence, threatening a fine of up to 2,500 per offence. The official line from the police and from the receiver of wreck, was that nothing should be moved from the beach.

Soon the beach was heaving with hundreds of people, taking whatever they could get their hands on. The free-for-all began in earnest when word got out that a crate of BMW motorbikes, worth 12,000 each, was among the 100 or so containers that had been washed ashore.

"Among the goodies that had fallen off the back of the MSC Napoli were motorbikes - steering wheels, carpets, beauty creams, shoes, golf clubs, oil paintings and camcorders. The salvagers carried, dragged and hauled what they could from the beach. And when they couldn't, they made sledges from wooden pallets. One gang brought their own tractor... items soon appearing on eBay. Ten steering wheel airbags advertised as coming from the MSC Napoli were up for auction before the end of the day."

"Tom 21, a Royal Marine, said: "We got here at midnight and haven't slept. I couldn't believe my eyes. There's so much stuff - it's like an Aladdin's cave ...By dawn, visitors were being directed to what they wanted, with the police apparently powerless to stop them."

"I was walking down the cliff path and I met a bloke who just said to me "if you want trainers they're on the left, and videos are on the right", said one visitor." "But Anita Bokdal, a Swedish woman sending goods to Cape Town, said she had been horrified to see photographs of her possessions being collected by beachcombers. "I can't believe they would do this," she told the Telegraph. "Those were our personal belongings."

(Source: The Guardian)