Both the owner of the tanker that collided with the frigate KNM Helge Ingstad and workers at the shipyard where the frigate was built have challenged a preliminary report on the collision issued last week by Norway’s state accident investigation board. That follows accusations that the report has downplayed the role of the crew on the frigate’s bridge, and highlighted those of others involved.
“Norwegian authorities are only searching for excuses,” the leader of the union representing workers at the Navantia shipyard in Spain, Javier Galán, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) this week. Galán is not pleased that the accident investigation board (Havarikommisjonen) and the Norwegian Navy (Sjøforsvaret) think something was wrong with the allegedly watertight compartments on the frigate. The vessel took on so much water after a collision with a tanker on November 8 that its crew had to be evacuated and the multi-billion-kroner frigate mostly sank shortly thereafter.
“We have never had such a complaint before, never,” Galán told NRK. He points to “navigational errors” that led the frigate’s crew to believe that an approaching tanker was instead a stationary object at the nearby Sture oil terminal. The terminal was actually a few hundred meters farther to the west, indicating that the frigate’s crew didn’t seem to know where they actually were, while sailing at the rapid speed of 17-18 knots southbound in the Hjelme Fjord northeast of Bergen.
“The way I see this, they’re just trying to avoid responsibility after things went wrong,” Galán said. “The crew on the frigate should have avoided a collision, and done more to avoid the serious situation that arose afterwards.” Management at Navantia declined comment, but noted in a statement that the frigates fulfilled all technical requirements before they were delivered to Norway.
The accident investigation board’s report suggests the collision was caused by a combination of factors and not one single incident. It also made a point of how the tanker, which had just loaded crude oil at the Sture terminal and begun to sail at a much slower speed after leaving the terminal, had its deck lights ablaze. That’s said to have confused the frigate crew, which thought the lights were part of the terminal. The deck lights, according to the report, also prevented the frigate’s crew from seeing that the tanker’s red and green navigational lights were lit.
There is, however, nothing abnormal about having deck lights lit on departure, according to one shipping expert. “That’s standard practice all over the world, that the deck lights remain lit for a while until you’re a ways out at sea,” wrote Eivind Sanden Vågslid, a retired veteran of both Norway’s maritime directorate and the UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO), in a commentary published on NRK. He has already criticized the preliminary report on the collision and claimed investigators are downplaying the role of the frigate’s crew.
Tanker owner defends use of lights
The Greek owner of the tanker Sola TS, Tsakos Energy Navigation, agrees and denies there was anything irregular about having the deck lights on. “It’s correct that the deck lights on the tank ship were lit both before, during and after departure from the Sture terminal,” Tsakos spokesman Patrick Adamson told NRK this week. “There’s nothing abnormal about that. There’s still a lot of work to do on the deck when an oil tanker is leaving the terminal.”
The shipowning firm didn’t want to comment further on the preliminary report from the accident investigation board, “out of respect” for the investigation process. It’s already been confirmed, however, that the tanker was escorted by a tugboat, had a pilot on board who was familiar with local waters and both he and the tanker’s Danish captain had repeatedly tried to identify the frigate that suddenly appeared to be heading straight towards them. They can be heard on tapes of the maritime communication published by newspaper VG urgently requesting the frigate to turn starboard (right) to avoid a collision, but the frigate’s crew did not seem to understand the dire situation they were in.
The Sola TS is a modern tanker that sustained relatively minor damage and spilled none of its oil in the collision, unlike the frigate which sustained a long gash on its starboard side and has leaked both its fuel oil and helicopter oil stored on board. NRK reported that the tanker is currently undergoing repairs in Gdansk, and should be back in service by mid-December.
Still ‘no comment’ from the Navy
The frigate, meanwhile, is still lying underwater after running aground after the collision. Bad weather interrupted salvage operations earlier this week and it’s not expected to be raised before Christmas.
Neither Norwegian government, defense nor naval officials will comment on the chain of events leading to the collision. “Our focus has been, and will continue to be, taking care of our personnel, salvaging the frigate and transporting it home to Haakonsvern (the naval base in Bergen),” the defense department stated on its website. “We continue to support the police and the accident investigations board in their work, and look towards how we can continue to manage the Navy’s assignments with one frigate less. At the same time we will go through our own internal investigation and see whether there is any action we must take to avoid such incidents in the future.”
The Navy also has praised the “impressive” work of its divers who have helped try to secure the frigate and remove various equipment, evidence and missiles.