Whether the tragedy and subsequent loss of more than 900 lives was caused by an inherent design fault in roll-on roll-off ferries, or whether poor seamanship was at fault, with the vessel being driven at excessive speed through heavy seas, could now determine the future of ferries operating out of UK and European ports.
The conclusions reached by the commission will be passed to the International Maritime Organisation, which is expected to drastically tighten up the safety regulations for these ferries within a year.
Measures, such as sealing front doors, restricting the use of ferries in rough weather and increasing the quality of life-saving equipment could add dramatically to the costs of operating ferries. The impact will be especially severe on cross-Channel routes, which demand a fast turnaround to compete with the Channel Tunnel.
British ferry operators yesterday said they would not be sealing the bow doors of ferries operating across the Channel and the Irish Sea, and would await the outcome of the inquiry by the International Maritime Organisation and instructions by the Department of Transport before taking other steps.
However the Independent has learned that at least two Scottish ferries owned by the P&O line and operating between Aberdeen and the Shetlands have had their bow doors welded for at least two years because of concerns about safety.
One of the ferries, the St Sunnival, had its bow door welded when it set sail on its inaugural voyage in heavy seas with dignitaries on board.
A violent wave hit the vessel and broke the windows on the bridge, destroying the electrical controls and forcing it to return to port. However the welded bow door did not give in despite the force of the seas.
A P&O spokesman insisted yesterday that there was no need to have bow doors sealed provided the ferries were operated correctly. Jim Hannah, spokesman for Stena Sealink, said that there was 'no recorded case of problems with bow doors in the UK', and that the company had no plans to stop using bow doors.
However, amid mounting concerns about ferry safety, the Marine Safety Authority of the Department of Transport announced that it was ordering checks on all roll-on roll-off passenger ferries in UK ports. 'In the light of evidence emerging from the Estonia, I believe it important that we should take this additional safety measure,' Robin Bradley, the agency's chief executive, said yesterday.
British ferry owners are hoping that the answer to the riddle of why the Estonia sank will centre on poor seamanship by the Estonian captain of the doomed vessel rather than a design fault. British ferry operators maintain that there is no cause for concern about the safety of roll-on roll-off ferries provided they are handled correctly
However, Swedish and Finnish maritime authorities have already decided that ferries with bow doors that open are simply too vulnerable to structural flaws or human error by the ships' crews and have decided to weld them shut. Denmark is preparing to do the same, rather than face exclusion of its ferries from other Scandanavian ports.
It will take up to three hours to load and unload vehicles through the stern or side doors of ferries once the bow doors are welded shut, a cumbersome process that companies have fiercely resisted as uneconomical until now. A decision to seal the bow doors of all European ferries may be the only way to reassure travellers.
The commission is examining hours of video tape and reviewing interviews with crew members who survived the ordeal to try and reach conclusions about the cause of the tragedy. A Swedish member, Hans Rosengren, said yesteray that the key question to be answered was whether it was the 'technology that failed, or was it perhaps the combination of rough weather and excessive high speed', adding that 'negligence can't be ruled out either'.
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