Defense officials shield frigate’s crew

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Norway’s Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen and Defense Chief Haakon Bruun-Hanssen have become the latest to protect and drum up public sympathy for the crew of the Norwegian frigate that collided with a tanker last week. After meeting crew members in Bergen, Bakke-Jensen went to far as to praise them despite numerous indications of human error on the bridge.

Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen (left) and Defense Chief Haakon Bruun-Hanssen tried to look on the bright side after meeting with crew members on board the ill-fated frigate that collided with a tanker last week. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Emil Wenaas Larsen

“They have been through serious experiences, but they have tackled it in a fabulously fine manner,” Bakke-Jensen told reporters after he and Bruun-Hanssen spoke with crew members on Wednesday. “They have told strong stories. It’s been a fine day of meetings.”

The frigate Helge Ingstad that cost billions of kroner to build now may be a total loss after sinking in shallow waters where efforts had been made, but failed, to secure the badly damaged warship and keep it afloat to avoid more water damage. Tapes of marine radio communication just before the collision a week ago reveal how the vessel had not made itself visible on radar and initially failed to respond to warnings that it was on a collision course with the fully laden tanker Sola ST, which was sailing out of a local oil terminal with an experienced captain and pilot on board.

Voices from the bridge of the frigate also rejected urgent requests to turn and yield to traffic coming from the right. The tanker, unable to slow down itself, then crashed into the frigate’s starboard (right) side, suffering only minor damage itself but leaving the frigate with a long and deep gash, and taking on water. Its entire crew of 137 on board ultimately had to abandon ship.

Bakke-Jensen also spoke with Navy Chief Nils Andreas Stensønes, nearly a week after the collision. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Emil Wenaas Larsen

Defense and naval officials have consistently refused to comment on the chain of events leading to the collision, claiming they must wait for the results of official probes into the cause of the collision from the police and the state accident investigation commission. They won’t reveal what those on the bridge may have said or any comments from the frigate’s commanding officer. He was identified as Commander Preben Ottesen during the NATO exercises in which the frigate participated just prior to the collision.

Rear Admiral Nils Andreas Stensønes told newspaper Aftenposten earlier this week that he hasn’t even discussed what happened or who was in charge with either the vessel’s chief or crew on the bridge. “That’s because we don’t want to influence anything given the independent investigations that are underway,” Stensønes said, “and because I have concentrated on taking care of them as people.”

That’s what Bakke-Jensen seemed to be concentrating on as well. Instead of being angry about the accident, which could cost taxpayers another NOK 9 billion if another replacement frigate needs to be built, he did his best to put a positive spin on what otherwise is a major disaster for the Norwegian Navy. “A frigate can collide,” Bakke-Jensen told newspaper Bergens Tidende. “When that actually happened, the crew carried out excellent seamanship, and I am extremely glad that we still have all of them with us.” There was no loss of life in the dramatic incident, and only eight crew members suffered minor injuries.

‘Unfortunate speculation’
Bakke-Jensen said he was aware of all the criticism around the frigate and its crew. He dismissed much of it as “speculation” and said he wants the accident investigators to be able to do their jobs in peace. Stensønes also cautioned against speculation, adding that it was “very unfortunate” that the public was “only getting a bit of the total picture,” for example by listening to the marine radio tapes.

He wasn’t offering to fill out the full picture, though, nor would he comment on reports that the crew on the bridge was in the midst of a shift change at 4am, just minutes before the collision occurred, and may have been distracted. “That’s one of the things I don’t want to comment on now,” Stensønes told Aftenposten. Even though he claimed he hadn’t talked with crew members about what actually happened, Stensønes said the chain of events “is more complicated than what’s come forth.”

‘Nightmare for the Navy’
He did report that while there have been no suspensions, those on the bridge “won’t go out sailing again right away.” Naval officers had earlier said it was important for all crew members to head right back out to sea after a collision, but those on the bridge will be subject to “an individual evaluation” and an evaluation of the group as a whole, “to see if they are ready and fit” for service.

Defense Chief and Admiral Haakon Bruun-Hanssen, a former submarine captain, said he still hoped the frigate can be repaired, but acknowledged that may not be possible. “This is a nightmare for the Navy,” Bruun Hansen told Bergens Tidende. “I think this is tragic for everyone involved. We are grateful we have everyone safe, it could have been so much worse.”

Bakke-Jensen kept looking on the bright side, too: “They (the crew) did what was demanded of them at the time, and they did absolutely everything they could. This could have been a lot worse. I’m so glad they made it to land.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund