Norway’s state accident investigation board issued a preliminary report on Thursday in which it found “no indications that technical systems did not function as expected,” prior to the dramatic collision between a Norwegian frigate and a tanker earlier this month. That suggests human error, investigators acknowledged, while noting that “no single act or incident” was behind it.
The collision in the early morning darkness of November 8 can only be explained, the board believes, by a “series of factors and circumstances” that are still being examined. The accident investigation board (Havari-kommisjonen) could not or would not answer most of the questions from reporters at a press conference Thursday afternoon, repeatedly saying that “we will come back to that after further investigation.”
One thing was made clear, however, by investigator Ingvild K Ytrehus: Norway’s frigate KNM Helge Ingstad mistakenly thought the deck lights fully lit on the tanker Sola TS were coming from “a stationary object,” and not the fully laden tanker that it was sailing towards at fairly high speed. That turned out to be a serious mistake that will cost Norwegian taxpayers billions of kroner.
Clear weather and calm seas
It was a clear night when the frigate sailed south in the Hjelte Fjord at a speed of “17-18 knots,” and the lights of the Sture oil terminal were visible from a great distance, according to the report. Ytrehus said that when the terminal first became visible to the crew on the bridge of the frigate, however, the tanker Sola TS was still at the terminal’s pier with its deck lights ablaze as it prepared for departure.
“It was hard (for the frigate crew) to see the difference between lights from the tanker and lights from the terminal,” Ytrehus said. Even after the tanker started sailing from the terminal, the frigate crew thought its lights were coming from a stationary object, not a tanker in motion.
More details emerged in the report itself. The tanker announced its departure over marine radio (Fedje VTS) at 3:45am, right when the frigate was undergoing a duty shift on its bridge. The investigators also confirmed that navigational training was being conducted on board the frigate. It’s unclear whether the frigtate’s crew heard the radio report of the tanker’s departure. The tanker, which had been berthed in a southerly direction, made a broad swing onto its northerly course. Since its decklights were still on, the frigate reportedly couldn’t see the Sola TS’ navigation lanterns.
At approximately 3:57am, two minutes after a new duty chief had taken over on the bridge of the frigate, the pilot on board the tanker could see signs of a southbound vessel on radar, just north of the tanker. The frigate’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) was set in receiver modus (only receiving information about other vessel, while withholding its own identity), prompting the tanker’s pilot to call the marine traffic radio at Fedje and ask for the name of the vessel that was rapidly approaching it. When it wasn’t made immediately available, the pilot and captain of the tanker then tried to contact the frigate by other means, according to investigator’s report, “blinking at it with an Aldis lamp” while the pilot asked the captain to turn the tanker 10 degrees starboard (right).
Drama at sea
At 4am the marine radio traffic informed the tanker that the vessel approaching it was probably the warship KNM Helge Ingstad, prompting the tanker’s pilot to call the frigate directly and ask it to swing starboard itself immediately. As revealed on tapes of the radio communication published by newssite VG earlier, the frigate responded that it couldn’t turn right until it had passed an unidentified object it had on its starboard side. The report issued Thursday notes that the frigate’s crew thought it was speaking with one of three other northbound vessels in the area, not the tanker with which it was on a collision course.
Just after 4am, the frigate found itself just 400 meters from the heavy tanker, which heaved its engine into full reverse to slow its speed. When the frigate still failed to change course, the tanker’s pilot and the marine traffice central at Fedje demanded the frigate “do something,” but it was too late, and the two vessels collided. While the tanker sustained only minor damage, the frigate was knocked out of control, started filling with water and drifted towards land where it later grounded. The crew was evacuated.
The accident investigators called the collision “complex,” involving a chain of events that are “demanding” to sort out. “Our goal is to determine how this could happen,” said William Bertheussen, director of the investigation board. Its decision to issue a preliminary report was made, he said, “out of consideration for the public’s need for information,” and to both improve safety and hinder such accidents from happening again.
Even though the board has been able to quickly retrieve an unusually large amount of information, secure voyage data recorders and interview key personnel on board both vessels, investigators now must carry out “thorough examinations” of cooperation among those on the bridges, “human factors,” routines, traffic monitoring and management, language and communication and the technical, operative, organizational and strategic choices made by those on board. Investigators won’t determine any civilian or criminal liability, leaving that to the police and, eventually, the military.
The preliminary report was also issued just after Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen controversially complained that Norwegian media had been asking too many questions and should wait for the official investigation, results of which may not be available for another year. That in turn stirred up criticism not only from the media but from opposition parties in Parliament, who were demanding reasons this week as to why Bakke-Jensen and military leaders have been so reluctant to answer questions about the collision.
Bertheussen said the investigation board may issue additional preliminary reports if they feel it’s necessary for safety reasons.