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`Estonia' inquiry says bow locks mainly to blame

Tallinn - Amid fingerpointing over what led to Europe's worst ferry disaster this century, members of the commission investigating the accident said yesterday they were not prepared to pin the blame on anyone.

"This commission isn't a prosecutor," Andi Meister, chairman of the three- nation commission, said in Tallinn. "We're not here to assess blame." A draft report indicated badly designed door locks and the weak steel construction of the bow-door visor were among the primary causes of the Estonia disaster, which cost more than 800 lives.

Meyer-Werft, the German shipyard that built the Estonia in 1979, reacted angrily to reports putting the blame on it, saying a collision with an unknown object was the maincause. It suggested the crew did not do enough to try to save the 15,000-ton ship.

Members of the commission refused to confirm reports about the main causes of the tragedy, but admitted they were focusing on construction and the bow- door locks. The commission's report is to be released on 7 April. Borje Stenstrom, a Swedish member of the commission, said when the conclusions are made, no one factor or person would bear all responsibility.

"It will have to be seen as a combination of many things," Mr Stenstrom said. "The design, the weather, the speed of the boat ... that kind of thing." He dismissed the idea that ship- builders should have anticipated the dangers when they designed the bow door and locks.

The Swedish investigator said while more stringent construction rules were developed in 1981, two years after the Estonia was built, there was no obligation to refit the ship.

From early on after the accident, speculation focused on the ferry's bow visor, a huge top-hinged door at the front of the ferry that swung up to allow vehicles to drive in and out of the ship's car-deck. The bow visor was secured by several locks. The lower lock, known as the Atlantic lock, was too weak to withstand extremely heavy pounding by rough seas, press reports have cited the commission as saying.