Norway’s own naval command was shaken once again during the weekend, when tapes were publicly aired by news site VG.no that reveal how the crew of the frigate Helge Ingstad repeatedly ignored warnings to change its course, and then the collision drama that followed. As evidence seemed to mount of human error on the bridge of the doomed frigate, military brass continued to mostly decline comment and none of those on board has been suspended.
On the contrary, reported newspaper Aftenposten Monday morning: Helge Ingstad’s crew is expected to sail again, and soon, on board another of Norway’s costly frigates. That’s considered part of “trauma treatment” after a collision, the severity of which has mounted since the frigate collided with a fully laden tanker shortly after 4am on Thursday.
It could have been both deadly and set off a massive oil spill, which was avoided largely because the tanker involved was delivered just last year, supplied with ultra-modern technology and built with multiple hulls to withstand accidents and winter sailing in northern waters. It had a pilot on board in addition to a captain with 15 years of experience sailing along Norway’s coast.
The tanker Sola TS, controlled by Tsakos Energy Navigation Limited, is one of nine sisterships all on long-term charter to Norwegian state oil company Equinor (formerly Statoil). The vessel had just left Equinor’s Sture oil terminal with a full load of Norwegian crude oil bound for Great Britain when it became aware that another vessel was bearing down on it from the north.
‘Helge Ingstad! Turn!’
The tanker first tried to identify the vessel via maritime traffic radio, without immediate success. It was told by those on duty at the maritime traffic central at Fedje that the unidentified vessel had not reported its presence.
When the frigate Helge Ingstad, returning to home port in Bergen after taking part in NATO’s huge Trident Juncture military exercise off Trondheim, eventually confirmed “yes, it’s us,” the tanker’s radioed warnings directly to the frigate on a collision course went unheeded.
“Turn starboard (right) at once,” an urgent voice from the tanker is heard on audio logs of the radio communication obtained and aired publicly by VG on Saturday evening.
A voice from the frigate, which earlier had been silent, objected, stating it would then “come too close” to sea markers set up for navigation in the area. It’s earlier been reported that the frigate, sailing at a speed of 17 knots, had made itself invisible on radar. Other vessels couldn’t see it on their instruments.
After the frigate confirmed its presence, the tanker issued more warnings: “You have to do something, you’re beginning to really close in (on us).”
There was no response. “Helge Ingstad! Drei (turn)!” demanded a voice from the tanker. No response. “There’s going to be a collision here, then. Turn!”
It was too late. The heavy tanker in motion, unable to stop itself, collided into the starboard side of the frigate. Then comes another voice from the tanker: “It can be a warship. I hit it.” That’s followed by the acknowledgement from the maritime traffic central: “Det er mottatt. (Message received).” There were 23 people on board the tanker, which sustained relatively minor damage to its bow, while the warship sustained a long and deep gash on its starboard side and was narrowly saved from sinking.
Then a call for ‘immediate assistance’
Communication between the tanker and the frigate was sporadic after that, as the frigate’s powerful alarms began to wail through the darkness. Someone on board the Helge Ingstad is heard saying “We have sounded the alarms, trying to gain control over the situation.” The marine traffic center at nearby Fedje responded again that the message was received.
A voice from the frigate later reports that it had “a situation, we have struck an unknown object” and that it had lost power and steering. The voice later reported it had also grounded and requested “immediate assistance … we need most everything.” Tugboats from the Sture terminal were sent directly to the frigate’s reported position.
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported confirmation from NATO, meanwhile, that the Helge Ingstad, ironically enough, was conducting navigational training at the time of the collision. Police reported during the weekend that everyone on the bridges of both the frigate and the tanker underwent breathalyzer tests to check for any alcohol consumption. The tests were negative, and police decided that blood tests would be unnecessary.
“I think that everyone who has grasped what happened on Thursday morning is glad that no lives were lost,” Dag Liseth of the state accident investigation board told newspaper Bergens Tidende on Sunday. The board is leading the main probe into the cause of the collision, but he won’t assign blame. “That’s the police’s job,” he said. A total of 137 people were evacuated from the stricken, ultra-modern frigate, eight of whom sustained minor injuries.
Defense officials and military brass continue to refuse comment on the cause of the collision, pending investigation results. Questions were rising on Monday as to why no one on the bridge of the frigate has been suspended or taken out of service while the investigation proceeds.
Naval officials confirmed they have listened to the tapes aired by VG and that they made “a deep impression” on them. No immediate punitive action seems to have been taken, however, with Thomas Gjesdal, information officer for the Navy, reporting that all those on board the frigate were urged to spend time with their families during the weekend before reassembling at the naval base in Bergen Monday morning.
“The goal is that the crew from Helge Ingstad shall head out and sail on one of the other frigates as quickly as possible,” Gjesdal told Aftenposten. Asked whether anyone who was on the bridge or its commander is being taken out of service while the investigation proceeds, Gjesdal said, “No, but this is something we are looking at closely at the moment. We’re striving to offer close follow-ups with every individual. We’ll use the time we have to make the right decisions.”