Waves broke ferry door, video shows: New doubts over ro-ro safety as five companies order ships' bows welded shut in wake of 'Estonia' disaster

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VIDEO pictures of the sunken ferry Estonia, released last night, suggested the ship's bow cargo door was ripped off in heavy seas, allowing water to rush on to the car deck, rapidly capsizing the vessel. More than 900 people died in the disaster.

In another blow to the ferry industry, the ship's owners, Estline, said they had ordered the bow doors on the Estonia's replacement sister ship, Vironia, to be permanently welded shut. Four other Scandinavian shipping companies said they were taking the same action. Restricting loading to the rear doors is likely to increase a ferry's turn-round times.

In Denmark, a Swedish maritime inspector found serious flaws in the bow doors of a Swedish-Danish ferry. She was immediately removed from service.

The close-up pictures of the Estonia, taken by cameras on a Sea Owl unmanned submarine, showed damage to the mechanism that locks the bow door. The pictures showed a hydraulic arm with a pin and locking ring broken away and the pin dangling as though it had been ripped out by the force of the sea.

The 60-ton door is meant to be watertight under all possible conditions and the evidence that it is prone to structural failure will deal a heavy blow to the international ferry industry. Ferry owners have maintained that it was not possible for bow doors to fail in this way. However, the team of Finns, Swedes and Estonians investigating the accident said a locking device on the movable outer bow door, or visor, had failed.

The Estonia was ploughing through mountainous seas last Wednesday morning when it appears the visor, the most vulnerable part of the ship, was prised open as it was being pounded by up to 1,500 tons of water a minute.

'The bow visor has become detached from the vessel as a result of the failure of the bow visor locking devices,' the investigators said. 'The watertight bow ramp that was located behind the visor is still in place, although there is a gap of about one metre along its top edge, which has allowed water to flow on to the car deck.'

The film of the sunken ship showed the words 'Estonia Tallinn' on the side of the ferry before zooming in on a hole in her bow where the visor should have been. The pictures appeared to show a metal mounting into which a steel lock pin was supposed to fit. The pin and locking ring had been broken away.

Estline said that because of doubts about the safety of bow doors they were permanently closing the bow of the Vironia to 'totally remove possible safety risks'.

The Swedish-Danish ferry Lion Prince was barred from sailing by Swedish inspectors after a deep crack was found in the outer visor, which is meant to be watertight. Erik Wedin, one of the inspectors, said: 'This is a very serious fault. It's inexcusable.'

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