Last week he was expressing relief and satisfaction that Oslo’s police chief recommended opening a new investigation into the deadly fire on board the ferry Scandinavian Star from Norway to Denmark 24 years ago. This week one of the experts in arson investigations that prodded the police into action was furious, claiming the police still want to cover up their own botched probe in 1990.
“The report from the police’s project group is a piece of catastrophically bad work,” Gisle Weddegjerde, an arson expert among those hired to probe the fire on board the ferry Scandinavian Star, told newspaper Aftenposten. It was his group’s investigation, uncovering many unanswered questions, that led to the police taking another look at their probe into the fire that killed 159 people.
A group of police officers from the Oslo Police District, state crime unit Kripos and economic crimes unit Økokrim was formed last year to look “with fresh eyes” at the circumstances around the Scandinavian Star. That came after Weddegjerde’s group had delivered its own report to the police last year and urged, on behalf of survivors and relatives those killed, that an investigation into the fire be reopened.
On Friday, Oslo Police Chief Hans Sverre Sjøvold announced he would recommend that the state prosecutor authorize a new, if limited, investigation. Sjøvold said he felt that various aspects of the fire “had not been illuminated well enough,” and that “we owe all those involved to find the best answers (to the nagging questions) as possible.” Later that evening, on state broadcaster NRK’s nightly national newscast, Sjøvold also conceded that police investigators at the time didn’t pay enough attention to the economic situation around the vessel. Many of the survivors and Weddegjerde suspect insurance fraud was involved, and that arsonists set no less than four separate fires on board the vessel as it sailed south from Oslo to Fredrikshavn.
Police group recommended against new probe
The ship fire resulted in Norway’s largest loss of life since World War II, and the Scandinavian Star fire remains a national catastrophe. Upon reading the police project group’s report delivered to Sjøvold, however, Weddegjerde discovered that the police actually recommended against relaunching an investigation. He now fears Sjøvold’s decision to override that with at least a partial investigation is aimed mostly at placating survivors and then ultimately closing the case for good.
“All the relevant points we took up, the really big holes in the initial investigation, have been ignored,” Weddegjerde told Aftenposten after reading the police project report more closely Friday evening. He doesn’t think the police follow-up to his group’s work is worth the paper it’s printed on.
He also now fears the report amounts to a cover-up. “They don’t want to admit to the deficient work carried out in the investigation (back in 1990-1991), because it will make the police look bad,” Weddegjerde said.
‘Unsolved mass murder’
Even though Sjøvold did decide to recommend a new probe despite his project group’s report, Weddegjerde now thinks “they’ll only take another look at a few areas. We believe we’re confronted with an unsolved mass murder of 159 people, because there’s no evidence a man suspected of being the arsonist actually was the arsonist,” Weddegjerde said. The suspected arsonist died in the fire himself, and and Weddegjerde claimed the police have excluded any probe of unidentified people observed on the ship.
Sjøvold, however, claims his project group did a comprehensive job of evaluating Weddegjerde’s group’s report. Jan Hersem, leader of a support group for victims of the fire, believes the initial investigation was “a scandal,” but claimed he was satisfied now, that a new probe loomed. Hersem’s pregnant wife Christine died in the fire after she ran out of their cabin to try to get some fresh air. The couple thus lost track of one another, while Hersem himself made his way to an open deck, holding the couple’s 18-month-old son Halvor and saving both their lives.