Batltic Ferry Disaster: Swedes accuse ferry operators of cover-up

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SWEDEN'S Maritime Safety Authority yesterday accused ferry operators of illegally covering up damage caused by heavy seas to the bow doors of several car ferries which operate in the Baltic Sea, as a question mark hung over the future of roll-on roll-off ferries plying the treacherous waters around the Gulf of Finland.

Sweden also ordered an immediate review of the safety of passenger vessels operating in its waters, and initial inspections found faults in the outer doors of ferries.

It also emerged yesterday that another ferry, the Silja Europa, sustained damage to its bow doors on the same evening that the Estonia foundered, with the loss of more than 900 lives. Marine authorities ruled yesterday that the vessel may leave Stockholm but ordered that it could not operate its front loading doors or the protective watertight visor, because of the danger of water leaking in while at sea.

The accusations of a cover-up over earlier accidents have triggered a furious row between owners and the Swedish authorities. At least three accidents to bow doors went unreported before the Estonia tragedy, according to Swedish authorities.

The captain of the Diana II, a TT line ferry on the Trelleborg to Rostock route which is reported to have sustained damage on 24 January 1993, when 52 lives were lost aboard the Polish ferry the Jan Heweliusz, denied the charge yesterday. The Swedish authorities claimed that they were never notified, as required by law, of the potentially catastrophic damage to the Diana II, an allegation strongly refuted by the captain, Torsten Soder.

The skipper claimed yesterday that his vessel received slight damage two days later, and that far from failing to notify the authorities, an inspector named Charles Nilsson was on board at the time of the incident. Mr Nilsson claimed yesterday that he was not on board the vessel at the time as alleged.

However, a confidential report on the accident to the Diana II, that was obtained by the Independent yesterday, reveals the severity of the damage caused to the bow door by towering waves to the vessel on the day in question. The typewritten surveyor's report reveals extensive damage to vital load bearing parts, including lugs and welds on the steel bow door, probably caused by driving the vessel at excessive speed through waves up to 20ft high.

The vessel was operating in extreme weather conditions similar to those encountered by the Estonia on Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning.

Prepared by marine inspectors for Bureau Veritas, the Paris-based ship certification authority, the report says 'the lug for starbord lock plunges was lost,' and that 'the lug in centre line (the Atlantic lock) was bent and the weld cracked'.

The report went on to say that vital locking mechanisms on the port side were also bent and cracked and that 'a girder in centre line and two webs on the starboard side (were) cracked'.

Captain Soder of the Diana II said yesterday that very little water entered the hold and that he had immediately reduced speed and turned away from the the oncoming waves.

The head of Swedish maritime safety, Bengt-Erik Stenmark, said that the bow door of the Estonia was probably ripped open before the ship sank and that the design of ferries operating in the Baltic would have to be reviewed.

'The external bow cover, which serves to protect the vessel, probably opened under the weight of the waves before the shipwreck,' he said. 'It is possible that the water found its way into the engine room, disabling the electrical system and making the ship impossible to manoeuvre. In such a situation, when water has got on board, such a vessel is practically doomed.'

The rapid inspections of passenger ships found problems on a Russian vessel in which daylight showed through one jamb of a side cargo door. The captain was advised to repair it before he left Stockholm, or at his next port.

'There is not supposed to be any light,' said the Swedish Maritime Safety Inspector, Pekko Piirinen. 'We told them to make it watertight. I've worked here for 10 years and I've never seen any leaking from that.' The inspectors had been searching for something as small as a slivver of light in the door jamb which could be forced apart in heavy seas.

The Estonian government has established a fund to help families of those lost in the ferry disaster. Donations may be sent to the 'Baltic Sea Ferry Disaster Fund', Midland Bank, Poultry and Princes Street, London EC2. Account no. 81361678. Sort code 40-05-30.

(Photograph omitted)