British investigator likely to join in Bahamian inquiry: Christian Wolmar looks at moves already under way to establish the cause of the blaze

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The Independent Online
THE investigation into the fire on the Sally Star was already under way yesterday with a Bahamian surveyor on board the ship.

But it will begin in earnest this morning in Dunkirk, France, where the vessel was being towed last night. Although the ship flies the Bahamian flag, the investigation is likely to be a joint effort with the Marine Accident Investigation Branch.

A Department of Transport spokesman said last night that no decision had been taken over whether a joint report would be produced or whether it would be made public: 'It will only be published if there are lessons to be learnt,' he said.

There were criticisms yesterday from Labour politicians that cross-Channel ferries are being allowed to sail under flags of convenience. Joan Walley, Labour's shipping spokeswoman, said: 'We have the right to know whether the highest standards of safety which we rightly demand from British- flagged ships are being followed by all ferries in British waters.'

Half of Britain's ferries now sail under flags of convenience, which shipowners use to evade taxes and to lower wage costs.

But NUMAST, the ships' officers union, was quick to praise Sally Line's safety record despite its use of a flag of convenience. The union's press officer, Andy Linington, said: 'We have negotiated successfully with the company to ensure that the officers are British. Originally they were Scandinavian. The Bahamas is also one of the better flags of convenience as they are able to carry out inspections.' He added that Department of Transport inspectors, who have the power to detain British and foreign- owned vessesls, have specifically targeted cross-Channel ferries in recent years.

Brian Cooper, senior surveyor with the Bahamian marine authorities, stressed that the inspection followed the same international requirements as if the vessel were British-registered. 'The ship was last fully inspected on 18 November last year and was due for its next inspection in November,' he said.

Fires in engine rooms, usually caused by leaks on to hot pipes, are the most common cause of conflagrations on ships.