A trail of unanswered questions follows the fatal fire on the Scandinavian Star where more than 150 were reported to have perished. Authorities in Denmark and Norway said they were examining arson as a possible cause after the captain, members of the crew and passengers said they believed the fire was set deliberately.
The Scandinavian Star was recently redeployed from one-day service in the SeaEscape fleet, sailing out of Port Canaveral, to the Da-No Line for ferry service between Norway and Denmark. At the time of the fire, the ship still carried the livery of SeaEscape, which was reported to have stated that it no longer had an interest in the ship and that the ship had been sold.
A total of 493 passengers and crew were aboard the Scandinavian Star on April 7 when the predawn fire started 40 miles south of Faerder in the Skagerrak.
The disaster is likely to bolster the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) demand to obtain more powers for itself and the US Coast Guard over safety matters involving foreign-flag ships.
The Bahamian-registered Scandinavian Star was classed with Lloyd'S registry of Shipping and received its LR passenger safety certificate on February 5, 1990, and the US Coast Guard was reported to have inspected the ship for Safety of Life at Sea conformity on February 6, 1990.
At hearings in Copenhagen late last week, it was reported that only five of 15 fire doors had functioned as they should and that the engine in at least one of the lifeboats would not start.
Several passengers interviewed said chaos reigned on board and that the Portuguese and Filipino crew was unable to communicate with the passengers. Several passengers also claimed that they had heard no alarm or announcements over the public address system.
Several crew members said they had never taken part in any fire drill or been given instructions. Company representatives, however, were reported to be adamant that the safety system and the training of the crew was satisfactory.
While the safety record of the U.S.-based foreign-flag cruise ships is generally impeccable, SeaEscape has suffered several fire incidents. On March 16, 1988, fire broke out on the Scandinavian Star which lasted for some 16 hours.
The NTSB investigated the incident and was highly critical of the ship's safety features and procedures. At the time, it called for a number of changes.
According to the NTSB, in the 1988 incident there were problems of language, with untrained firefighters, muster lists and lifejackets. NTSB Chairman James Kolstad said that the similarities between the 1988 situation and the recent fire were "disturbing."
The origin of the 1988 fire, however, was reported to be oil leaking on a hot surface. Kolstad will be testifying on behalf of the NTSB's campaign for more powers at upcoming Congressional hearings.
While the Scandinavian authorities are reportedly questioning two brothers who were passengers on the Scandinavian Star and were said to have a history of arson, no further details were forthcoming at press time.
Several phone calls to different executives at SeaEscape by CIN (as well as by several other publications) were unanswered.
Several phone calls by CIN to the Coast Guard were also unanswered. At press time, the actual owner or owners of the Scandinavian Star had not been identified. And it was not established whether SeaEscape had implemented the safety improvements recommeded by the NTSB following the 1988 fire.
It was also unknown how many of the officers and crew members on board the Scandinavian Star on April 6 were the same that had worked on the ship while she sailed for SeaEscape. Testifying at the hearings in Copenhagen, the Chief Engineer, who had served on the Scandinavian Star for 16 months, said he did not know the details of the Bahamian fire regulations. He said that the crew had formed their own regulations, combining Coast Guard and Scandinavian rules, and that the system was tested once a week.
To the extent the ship's management and crew were the same, a new theory emerges in light of SeaEscape's history of fire incidents, namely that the fire was the result of management and/or crew errors, or worse, that a crew member was the alleged arsonist. That possibility, however remote and unlikely, also lends credence to passenger reports that there were no audible alarms nor announcements over the public address system if these had been disabled.
With SeaEscape executives as well as the Coast Guard not returning phone calls, they leave the door wide open for speculation.
However, there have recently been several fire incidents on Danish-owned ferries linked to arson so it is indeed a strong possibility that the Scandinavian Star disaster was the work of a passenger arsonist.
According to the hearings, there were at least two fires. The first, involving a woolen blanket in a corridor, was quickly extinguished.
But as soon as this fire had been put out, a second fire started on a different deck.
The present operator and local authorities are also to blame if it is true as has been reported that the crew did not undergo any firefighting training and that the ship, contrary to regulations, was not inspected by the Skipskontrollen in Oslo.
Questions are also likely to be raised in conjunction with the ship's inspections by Lloyd's Register and the Coast Guard, when only weeks later it was found that the majority of the fire doors were inoperative.
The many unanswered questions would seem to indicate a series of unfortunate circumstances that would have made firefighting difficult at best under almost any circumstances.
Other obvious questions that may be raised in this country would be how such a fire could happen on a relatively modem ship which was fitted with smoke and fire detectors, and was divided into fire zones. After all, she was given a clean bill of health only weeks prior to the disaster.
According to Det Norske Veritas, the Scandinavian Star disaster painted out that competent ship management is just as important as compliance with technical rules and regulations.
Last fall, the International Maritime Organization adopted guidelines on management of safe ship operation. The DNV has gone further by developing criteria for classifying ship management, both at company level and on board the individual vessel. According to the DNV, human error, rather than technical breakdowns, is responsible for 80 percent of accidents at sea.
The seemingly sudden transfer of the Scandinavian Star from one-day operations in Port Canaveral has not been fully explained, although according to sources at the port, SeaEscape announced that the ship had been sold the day before it left.
However, in the present market of high-cost tonnage, it is not expected that cruise lines sell vessels that are in good operating condition. In the case of the Scandinavian Star, it also seemed to sail with acceptable load factors. In addition, the one-day market has been growing and SeaEscape should furthermore be able to benefit from economies of scale with a fleet of three to four ships compared to most of its competitors in the one-day market which are one-ship operations.
SeaEscape meanwhile has had three different presidents at the top in the recent months. Its current President is Douglas MacGarvey who most recently was President for the short-lived Tropicana Cruises and before that with Sea Venture, which never materialized, and prior to that, at Regency Cruises.
Preceding MacGarvey was Richard Knott, who was at the helm for only a few months, succeeding Niels Erik-Lund who came from the former Scandinavian World Cruises organization.
To avoid any speculation as to the company's relationship to the Scandinavian Star, it would have been simple for SeaEscape to issue statements and talk to the press, but that appears not to have been company policy. A simple statement as to the ownership of the Scandinavian Star, as to the origin of the ship's staff, crew and officers, and as to ship's compliance with safety regulations while operating from Port Canaveral, would also have quelled speculative press reports.
Not responding to this newsletter, nor to major international shipping publications or U.S. travel trade press, may put the company in a less than favorable light by encouraging speculation by the press as well as the travel agent community and the public.
CIN called the SeaEscape executive responsible for public relations several times and also placed calls to the company's president and vice presidents of marketing and operations.
Calls to the Coast Guard followed a more interesting path as the reporter was asked to call different offices until he reached the right office and the right person. Then, he was cut off, put on hold, but eventually able to leave a message.
Operators and travel agents selling cruises in Northern Europe have already received a number of inquiries from concerned vacationers.
In March 1984, the Scandinavian Sea, which at the time was operated by Scandinavian World Cruises, which was to become SeaEscape, was declared a constructive total loss as the result of a fire that began in a crew room and burned for three days. The ship immediately returned to Port Canaveral, and none of the 744 passengers was injured.
For the last two to three years, that ship has been operating under the name of Discovery I for Discovery Cruises without any reported incidents.
In August of 1984, another company ship, the Scandinavian Sun had a fire break out just after it docked in Miami. One of the 530 passengers and one of the 201 crew died of smoke inhalation, and four others received minor injuries.
SeaEscape is not the only cruise line to have suffered accidents, but it is the only company to have suffered so many accidents within a relatively short period of time.
In the 1970s, there were several ships that burned at sea, including the Cunard Ambassador which suffered a ruptured fuel tank while on a positioning voyage without passengers in the Gulf of Mexico in 1974.
In 1979, the 1939-built Angelina Lauro burned at the dock in St. Thomas while most passengers and crew where ashore.
The Angelina Lauro burned for four days and was declared a total loss.
During the 1980s, while several ships suffered different incidents, among the more notable was the fire that struck the Prinsendam in Alaskan waters in 1980 while on a positioning cruise from Vancouver to the Far East. The 8,500-ton ship, which was delivered in 1973, was a year behind schedule because a fire destroyed her passenger accommodations and most of the superstructure. The 1980 fire raged out of control and the ship was abandoned. It later sank under tow. Passenger suffered from exposure, but there was no loss of life.
In 1985, the Pilgrim Belle ran aground, which was later attributed to navigational error, and was holed on a reef off Cape Cod. In 1986, the Emerald Sea had a fire in an engine department store room while at anchor in the Bahamas. Several passengers had to be treated for smoke inhalation. In February of 1989, the Celebration rammed a Cuban freighter operating without lights. In the summer of 1989, the 25,000-ton Russian cruise ship, the Maksim Gorky, plowed into an ice flow near Spitzbergen. While she took on water, passengers and crew got off with only minor injuries, and the ship was repaired. In January of this year, SeaEscape ' s Scandinavian Saga was temporarily taken out of service by the Coast Guard following a fire incident while the ship was docked.
The Scandinavian Star was one of the few ferries in the region that operates under a flag of convenience and employs a foreign crew. The Scandinavian governments recently considered a request to ban flags of convenience for ferry services, a move which is likely to take place after this disaster.
The request was reportedly made by the Nordic Transportation Workers' Union from concern that more operators want to use cheaper labor to cut costs. The union has been increasingly concerned about the differences in wages and conditions for foreign workers compared to their Scandinavian counterparts. Last summer, the Fred Olsen vessel Black Prince was subject to a walk-out by several Filipino crew members for unacceptable wages reportedly instigated by the union. The ship later sailed leaving those crew members behind. At the time, the company also denied ownership of the vessel, instead referring to a company in the Philippines, which it later turned out was owned by the same Norwegian Fred Olsen company.
The fire on the Scandinavian Star was the worst North Sea ship disaster since March 6, 1987, when the car ferry, the Herald of Free Enterprise, capsized off the Belgian port of Zebrugge, killing 189 people.
The 10,513-ton Scandinavian Star was built at Alsthom Atlantique in 1971 and was refurbished in 1984.