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54 drowned in Polish ferry disaster

Adrian Bridge
Friday 15 January 1993 00:02 GMT

A total of 54 people drowned yesterday, despite an international rescue operation, after a Polish ferry capsized in a fierce storm off the north German coast in the early hours of the morning.

By late afternoon, German, Polish and Danish rescue teams said they had picked up only nine survivors from the 63 passengers and crew of the Jan Heweliusz ferry sailing from Ystad in Sweden to Swinoujscie in Poland. All those rescued were flown by helicopter to German hospitals where they were treated for hypothermia after being picked up from the Baltic Sea, where the water temperature was 2C (36F).

Gert Muller-Esch, director of a clinic in Stralsund, said survivors told him the ship had started listing so quickly there had been no time to get the lifeboats out.

Dr Muller-Esch said six of them were in good condition and would leave the hospital today, but a seventh survivor was in critical condition.

German authorities called off a search with ships and helicopters for survivors at 5 pm because of darkness. Police casualty figures appeared to mean that all of the passengers on board had been accounted for, nobody was missing and the search would not have to be resumed today.

Expressing her deep sympathy with all those affected, Hanna Suchocka, Poland's Prime Minister, announced the formation of a special government committee to investigate the disaster and promised help to the relatives of all those who had died.

The Jan Heweliusz, which capsized 18 miles off the German island of Rugen, was a roll-on, roll- off ferry of similar design to the Herald of Free Enterprise which capsized off the Belgian port of Zeebrugge in March 1987 claiming 193 lives.

This latest capsizing tragedy is bound to be used as further ammunition by those pressing for improvements in the design of such vessels which would enable them to stay afloat for much longer when disaster strikes.

Swedish maritime experts expressed astonishment that the Jan Heweliusz, which was carrying 29 lorries and 10 railway carriages, had left Ystad on Wednesday night despite warnings of stormy conditions in the Baltic.

In Stockholm, the Swedish news agency TT said that the ferry, which was built in 1977 and owned by the Polish firm PLO, had capsized on two previous occasions. In August 1982, it keeled over during the loading of railway wagons and lorries in Ystad port, while four years earlier it capsized because of a fault in valves regulating the ballast tanks, TT reported.

The cause of yesterday's disaster was not immediately known, but rescue officials speculated that with winds of up to 100mph, some of the railway carriages aboard may have broken loose from their couplings. In addition to Poles and Swedes, the passengers, many of them lorry-drivers, were believed to include Danes, Germans, Czechs, Hungarians, Norwegians and Turks.

(Map omitted)

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