Police to meet ferry disaster panel

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Leaders of the Oslo Police have agreed to meet members of an expert panel who are demanding a new investigation into the deadly fire on board the ferry Scandinavian Star in 1990. The chief of police and chief of criminal investigations will take part in the meeting on Friday, after the panel issued its own report on the disaster last weekend.

Investigators of the fire, which killed 134 Norwegians sailing from Oslo to Frederikshavn in Denmark, already concluded at the time that it was arson and they identified the arsonist as a Danish truck driver who died in the blaze himself. The foundation behind the panel, called Stiftelsen Etterforskning av Mordbrannen Scandinavian Star, believes the fire was instead set by crew members on board the ferry as part of an insurance scam.

‘Wrong man blamed’
In their report released on Saturday, the self-appointed panel puts forth comprehensive material and witness testimony that police didn’t gather during their own investigation. Panel members include arson experts and insurance investigators, who believe that the wrong man was blamed for the blaze that killed a total of 159 persons on the night of April 6, 1990.

They believe crew members set several fires aboard the vessel, the ownership of which was highly unclear. The captain of the ship and the two Danish men ultimately identified as in charge of its operation were sentenced to prison for various safety violations, but the panel believes crew members were part of an attempt at insurance fraud and that at least some of those responsible survived and should be charged.

Many questions
Øystein Meland, who led an earlier investigation of the blaze and a reconstruction of events, told newspaper Bergens Tidende that he supports the demand for a new investigation. “There are threads here that represent events that haven’t been clarified,” Meland said. “I fully support a new investigation.”

Meland criticized some of the panel’s theories but agrees there are enough questions to warrant a new investigation. His group’s mandate was limited back in 1990, and he was not familiar with claims by the panel that their evidence shows that oil pipes in the ceilings were forcibly pulled down to add more fuel to the blaze. “And why was there as much oil in the pipes as there was? There are many such questions that are unanswered,” he said.

Gisle Weddegjerde, a ship inspector and member of the panel, said panel members can prove that the Scandinavian Star was over-insured less than a week before it burned in international waters off Sweden’s west coast. He said the beneficiary was a Miami-based company in which three Scandinavians were involved.

‘This was murder’
Håkon Winterseth, a senior engineer and arson expert at Skansen Consult in Bergen, said mattresses and linens were used to feed fires set on board the ship in the middle of the night. He pointed to photographs of burned mattresses in the corridors of the ship. “Someone must have placed them there to get them to burn,” he said when the panel presented its findings.

“This wasn’t an accident,” said Winterseth. “This was murder.”

The head of the Scandinavian Star survivors’ group, Jan Harsem, believes the panel’s report is credible and described the aftermath of the blaze that killed his pregnant wife as scandalous. Espen Walstad, who lost his mother in the fire, said he “just wants the truth to come out after all these years. Neither society nor the survivors can live with all the unanswered questions.”

Tor Aksel Busch, Norway’s chief prosecutor (Riksadvokaten) who infuriated and disappointed frustrated survivors when he turned down a request for a new probe as late as last year, said he will ask to see the expert panel’s report. He otherwise had no comment. Several Members of Parliament said they support a new probe, adding that the panel’s new report must be taken seriously.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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