Dramatic end to NATO exercises

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LATEST UPDATE: A major maritime drama unfolded Thursday morning as rescue crews desperately tried to save one of Norway’s expensive and relatively new frigates from sinking. Things took a turn for the worse later in the morning, after the frigate KNM Helge Ingstad collided during the night with at least one other vessel while returning from the past weeks’ huge NATO exercise.

Norway’s defense department released this photo of the frigate Helge Ingstad while it was taking part in last week’s NATO exercises. On Thursday morning it was in danger of sinking just outside an oil terminal in Hordaland. PHOTO: Forsvaret

The Helge Ingstad was seriously damaged and taking in water just outside an oil terminal at Øygarden in Hordaland, while Norwegian media did their best to cover the drama as prohibitions were imposed both in the air and at sea.

Here’s Norway’s frigate Helge Ingstad at around 9:30 Thursday morning, as rescue crews desperately tried to save it from sinking. A severe gash can be seen on its starboard side. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

The collision marked a dramatic end to NATO’s otherwise successful Trident Juncture exercise, during which the Helge Ingstad took part in anti-submarine training in the seas northwest of Trondheim.

And here’s NRK’s live coverage around an hour later, when reports were that the vessel appeared to be sinking once again. By 10:30am, all personnel on board the vessel had been ordered to leave. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

The vessel was even visited just last week by the US admiral in charge of Trident Juncture, who claimed the frigate and its crew had done a “formidable” job during NATO’s display of military might and defense capability.

US admiral James G Foggo had told the Norwegian crew on board the Helge Ingstad that “the world is watching, and I would like to thank you for the work you are doing.”

On Thursday morning the Norwegian frigate’s crew probably hoped the world was not watching, as the vessel listed badly. It was in danger of sinking after the collision that Norway’s defense department said occurred at 4:26am in the Hjelte Fjord north of Sotra. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that the vessel had been on its way back to base in Bergen, sailing south from Trondheim with other members of its NATO fleet when it collided with the tanker Sola TS.

Norway’s accident investigation board later reported that three vessels were involved in the collision: the frigate, the tanker and a tugboat called Tenax. No further details were immediately available pending a defense department press conference later Thursday afternoon.

Mixed reports as rescue operation unfolded
After several dramatic hours, local firefighting and rescue crews reported that the frigate was under tow and no longer in danger of sinking. They strived to keep more water from entering the vessel, and local assistant fire chief Frode Bodtker told NRK just before 9:30am that “there shouldn’t be a danger now that the ship will go down.”

That was highly debatable an hour later, when NRK’s live photos from the scene indicated the vessel had sunk much deeper into the water. NRK also reported that two of the large vessels that tried to stabilize the frigate and tow it to land had pulled back. The frigate was on its side and it appeared the rescue action had taken an even more dramatic turn for the worse. Speculation was rising that the stricken vessel may be left lying as it is, with attention turning to efforts to contain oil leaking from the vessel.

Eirik Valle of Norway’s main search and rescue command for Southern Norway confirmed, meanwhile, that the frigate earlier had lost control of its steering and grounded just outside the Sture Terminal on an island in Hordaland’s archipelago with 137 people on board.

No cause of the collision revealed
Defense officials refused to offer any reason for the collision, which occurred in the dark of night but in good weather and on calm seas. “I don’t want to speculate on the cause,” a military spokesman told NRK, claiming that would be left up to the “neutral” state commission charged with investigating accidents.

US Admiral James G Foggo, who led NATO’s Trident Juncture exercise, was photographed here on on board the Norwegian frigate Helge Ingstad just last week. He visited while observing the exercises that he also claimed “the world was watching.” PHOTO: Forsvaret/Marius Vågenes Villanger

The Helge Ingstad’s Commander Preben Ottesen (left) with US Admiral James G Foggo when Foggo visited the frigate last week. Ottesen had claimed Norway has “a modern and well-trained Navy,” but is vessel was in serious trouble Thursday morning. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Marius Vågenes Villanger

Norway’s defense department stressed Thursday morning that “the most important thing” was that all 137 people on board the Helge Ingstad were evacuated from the vessel. Eight were said to have sustained minor injuries and were being attended to by health care personnel.

A swift rescue operation was mounted after the collision, in close cooperation with the Norwegian Coast Guard. By 9am the frigate was listing badly and reportedly leaking fuel. That got worse later in the morning.

“We’re doing everything we can to save the ship,” declared one of those involved in the rescue operation to NRK. Efforts were also being made to contain fuel spillage in the area that’s dotted with small islands and described as a “cultural landscape.” NRK reported that the frigate had 500,000 liters of fuel on board, plus fuel for helicopters.

Built to be unsinkable
The Helge Ingstad is one of five “Nansen-class” frigates built at the Spanish shipyard Navantia in Ferrol and delivered from 2006 to 2011 after some serious delays. The F313 KNM Helge Ingstad was delivered in 2009 and built with features to prevent any sinking.

Norway’s own defense department’s website claims they were built in “zones” designed to keep the vessel “intact” and operable even if it was damaged. The vessel was said to have three water-tight zones and four so-called NBCD zones with ventilation, filter and pressurization. Two of the zones were also said to be “independent” with their own electrical power supplies.

The vessel is also supposed to be able “to see everything that moves” in its vicinity, according to an article in Maritimt Magasin that described its sonar and radar systems.

All the frigates ordered in Spain, however, were plagued by what Norway’s own state auditor general last year called “major weaknesses” and “serious deficiencies.” Their technology was said to be outdated even before the vessels were delivered and they have spent lots of time berthed and out of action.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund