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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Survivors hail new willingness to reexamine ‘Scandinavian Star’ fire

Survivors of the deadly fire on board the passenger- and car ferry Scandinavian Star 23 years ago are relieved that the Oslo Police now agree they should launch a new investigation into who was responsible. It’s already been ruled a case of arson, but the survivors and victims’ families have been plagued for years by unanswered questions and feelings of injustice.

“I hope the truth about the fire will come forward now,” Øyvind Olaussen, who rescued his wife and survived the fire that killed 159 of the 482 persons on board the ferry, told newspaper Aftenposten on Saturday. He told a harrowing tale of the fateful night of April 6, 1990, when he woke up to find the corridor outside their cabin on the ferry sailing from Oslo to Frederikshavn in Denmark full of thick smoke.

‘Stumbling over dead bodies’
“I woke up my wife and we left the cabin as quickly as we could,” Olaussen told Aftenposten. “I didn’t even take time to put on socks or shoes.”

Holding on to each other’s hands, they fought their way through the thick smoke until his wife collapsed and lost consciousness. He then dragged her along until they eventually made it out to the vehicle deck and he managed to revive her. Then, worried about the danger of vehicles exploding in the fire, they returned to the corridor where a crew member who didn’t speak Norwegian pointed to stairs leading to the afterdeck.

Olaussen said the couple “stumbled over dead bodies the whole way up the stairs” until they came out into fresh air on the deck where they were met with more persons both dead and alive. He saw the Stena Saga cruise ferry heading towards them, to aid in the rescue, and got his wife into a lifeboat. Then they were separated, while he shivered on board in just trousers and a T-shirt in the cold air of early spring.

That’s when he said he noticed fully dressed crew members with packed suitcases leaving passengers behind, some of them children, as they saved themselves by climbing into lifeboats. One of the crew members even rejected Olaussen’s request for a pair of socks to warm his freezing bare feet, but finally opened his suitcase and found a pair that he gave Olaussen before disappearing.

Suspicions of crew involvement
While some crew members made heroic attempts to help save passengers, according to Olaussen, others seemed prepared for the disaster and did nothing to help. That’s fueled suspicions that some crew assisted in setting the fires as part of what a self-appointed investigatory panel believes was ultimately a case of insurance fraud. The panel, which released a detailed report on the fire last weekend with new evidence, thinks as many as nine crew members were guilty of arson but never pursued or prosecuted.

The release of their new report and the publicity around it finally secured a meeting for the panel members with top officials of the Oslo Police on Friday. When it was over, Oslo Police Chief Hans Sverre Sjøvold said he and his colleagues had asked for “the new facts that we haven’t had access to earlier” to be documented in a report that could in turn “form the basis for a new investigation of the case.”

Asked whether a new investigation loomed, Sjøvold said “yes, we must look at this anew. When we get these facts on the table, we must go through them to see what has come in addition to what was known from before.”

The state prosecutor’s office (Riksadvokaten) has the final say on whether a new investigation will in fact be launched, and its head, Tor-Aksel Busch, turned down the latest request from survivors just over a year ago. Danish prosecutors have also been reluctant to re-open the investigation. That was before the panel had concluded its own report, however, which is based on a lengthy, voluntary investigation by maritime, arson and insurance experts. Sjøvold said the most important thing now was to examine the “new facts” dug up by the independent panel.

Its members, along with survivors, were pleased. “It’s incredible that we finally had a serious meeting with the police,” Terje Bergsvåg, deputy leader of the foundation supporting the panel, told newspaper Dagsavisen. He said he’d had “many meetings with police earlier, and they have been most concerned with avoiding a new investigation.” His group has been poised to charge Busch and the prosecutors from the time of the fire for failing to do their jobs.

Many survivors have long sensed a reluctance on the part of authorities and politicians in both Norway and Denmark to re-examine the case. Now they feel a sense of hope, after the meeting with police exceeded their expectations.

“I feel certain that this material (from the panel) will form a basis for a new investigation of the entire case,” said Gisle Weddegjerde, maritime technical expert on the panel. The police already have said they will call a new meeting after going through the panel’s findings.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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