UPDATED: All efforts to salvage the Norwegian frigate Helge Ingstad were sinking along with the vessel itself on Tuesday. Wires connected to the frigate during the weekend to stabilize it snapped early in the morning, and by 11am, only its radar tower and a bit of its aft deck was visible above the surface of the water. The Norwegian Navy announced, meanwhile, that it now intends to conduct its own internal investigation into how the frigate disaster could have occurred.
It was a sad sight as the once-proud warship assigned to NATO’s fleet sank in the waters of Øygarden, the islands just off Norway’s West Coast northeast of Bergen. The frigate had been sailing late last week back to home port at the Norwegian naval base Haakonsvern in Bergen, after taking part in NATO’s otherwise successful Trident Juncture military defense exercises off Trondheim, when it collided with a fully laden tanker sailing out of Equinor’s Sture oil terminal.
While the tanker sustained only minor damage, the Helge Ingstad suffered a long gash on its starboard (right) side, lost all steering and drifted towards land, where all 137 on board were evacuated. The vessel has been lying on its side since the collision last Thursday morning, which occurred after the frigate had been sailing at a relatively high speed of 17 knots and off the radar screen, failed to make its presence known to the local maritime traffic center at nearby Fedme and was allegedly on a collision course with the tanker.
Tapes from the log of radio communication that was finally established just minutes before the collision reveal how those on the frigate’s bridge ignored requests to turn. Military officials continue to refuse comment on how the collision occurred pending results of official probes being conducted by both the state accident investigation board and the local police. On Tuesday, however, the chief of Norway’s Navy, Commander Nils-Andreas Stensønes said an internal investigation would be conducted in cooperation with the accident investigation board.
The refusal to comment or reveal what they already know about the chain of events leading to the accident is becoming a matter of controversy itself. Political commentator Frithjof Jacobsen of newspaper VG claimed on NRK’s national news radio Tuesday morning that the lack of comment only fuels speculation that can damage military credibility in the future.
Stensønes now says an internal investigation “will look at the reasons (for the collision) and the chain of events,” while also charting all the laws and regulations that apply. The investigation, he said, “should give us advice on what we can do better,” Stensønes said.
Questions have also arisen as to why no one on the bridge of the frigate at the time of the collision has been suspended or relieved of duties. No known punitive action has been taken at all, despite the danger the collision posed to both human life and the environment, and the sheer financial loss of a frigate that cost taxpayers billions of kroner to build and operate. Norway’s fleet of frigates are considered a major part of the country’s defense. The frigate collision is becoming a national embarrassment.
More problems Monday night
Naval officials said Tuesday morning that the latest drama around the frigate actually began Monday night, when the bow of Helge Ingstad sunk around a meter deeper into the water. That put more pressure on the wires and cables securing it to nearby rocks, and two of the wires snapped.
“They were replaced with new wires,” Håvard Mathisen of the Navy’s defense material division said at a press conference late Tuesday morning. Mathisen has been leading the effort to secure the vessel until it can be hoisted onto a barge and towed to Haakonsvern.
At 6am on Tuesday, however, all the wires connected to the foreward end of the vessel snapped. Mathisen stressed that wires tied to the aft end were intact, and he claimed the frigate was now stable after settling deeper into the water.
Questions were already flying over whether the damaged frigate, now also subjected to heavy water damage, can ever be salvaged. “I doubt whether this can be a frigate again,” Erik Tveten, who has 35 years of experience in maritime salvage, told newspaper Aftenposten even before the frigate sunk further.
“All the electrical equipment has to be replaced, including all wiring subjected to water,” Tveten said. “The bridge is lying (partially at the time) under water. In principle all that equipment would have to be replaced, too, also everything that’s been wet.” He also had pessimistic projections about the state of the vessel’s motors and parts that have been subjected to salt water and thus rust and corrosion.
His comments came when around 70-80 percent of the frigate was under water. On Tuesday the vessel was almost entirely submerged.