Video reveals huge damage to frigate

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Norway’s defense department released underwater video on Friday showing, for the first time, just how extensive the damage is to the frigate KNM Helge Ingstad after it collided with a tanker last month. Another maritime expert, meanwhile, claims accident investigators are “undercommunicating” the frigate crew’s responsibility for the collision that could have resulted in a much larger human and environmental catastrophe.

The video was taken by a marine diving unit (Sjøforsvarets Minedykkerkommando, MDK) normally used for handling underwater mines, ammunition and bombs. Its members have been diving around the mostly sunken wreckage of the frigate for weeks, removing ammunition, weapons and other hazardous material.

Last week they filmed the damage to the hull of the frigate that earlier appeared just as a long gash against the vessel’s starboard side. The pictures taken from the depths of the Hjelte Fjord indicate that the damage is much worse than thought.

“It’s really something to see one of our frigates lying under water,” Commander Bengt Berdal, who leads MDK, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Friday afternoon. “When we see how the hull was torn apart, you can only imagine what it was like for those on board.”

The video shows how cabins and other areas of the frigate were smashed in the collision. PHOTO: Sjøforsvarets Minedykkerkommando

The video shows how cabins and work areas were smashed, flooring torn up and ventilation fans hanging from what’s left of ceilings. It’s possible to see right into what had been an accommodation area, sleeping quarters, machine rooms and a generator room. The tanker, which suffered only minor damage, tore a gash in the starboard side of the frigate that’s around 45 meters long and eight meters high, and water poured into what were believed to have been water-tight compartments.

Berdal says it was “sheer luck” that all 137 people on board the frigate survived the collision, with only a few suffering minor injuries before they were all evacuated in the dark, early morning hours of November 8. The frigate was returning to its home port at Haakonsvern in Bergen after participating in NATO’s huge Trident Juncture exercise around Trondheim when it collided with a tanker that had just loaded oil and was sailing out of the Sture terminal in Øygarden northwest of Bergen.

Rolf Ole Eriksen, who was in charge of accident preparedness for oil company Norske Shell and now serves as a consultant on maritime security, wrote in a commentary in newspaper Aftenposten this week that only “a miracle averted a gigantic catastrophe, that had potential for large loss of life, fire, explosions and extensive pollution” of the environment all along Norway’s West Coast that’s dotted with islands off Bergen. The frigate was carrying weapons, ammunition, missiles and helicopter oil in addition to its fuel.

Hundreds of people are working on the salvage of the sunken frigate, which has been delayed by poor weather. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Jakob Østheim

Eriksen, like several others, is highly critical of a preliminary report released by Norway’s state accident investigations board (Havari- kommisjonen). He claims, as have others, the investigators are clouding not only the severity of the collision but the responsibility for it that he firmly believes lies with the crew on the bridge of the Helge Ingstad. He notes how the frigate was sailing at a high speed of 17-18 knots with its crew believing the tanker was a stationary part of the oil terminal. The crew didn’t seem to know where they were, or have noticed the tanker on radar.

“The frigate, with top modern radar and navigational equipment on board, could follow every movement of all vessels in the area,” Eriksen wrote. “Two tugboats were lying alongside the tanker. The pilot on the tanker alerted Fedje (the local maritime traffic central) that they were preparing for departure, and the frigate was informed (just before a duty shift) that a tanker was cleared to leave the terminal.” Yet accident investigators claim the frigate’s crew understood the tanker to be a stationary object. It seemed to be sailing “almost blindly, without following radar that would have shown the tanker on its way out of the terminal,” according to Eriksen.

He doesn’t mince words in his evaluation that the board “is undercommunicating the frigate’s clear responsibility, veiling the actual conditions, omitting important parts of the chain of events and creating a mistaken impression.” He also claims the frigate had a “clear obligation” to have reduced its speed or even stop while evaluating the traffic situation. “But it just continued sailing at the same high speed and with a course that would have had them colliding with the terminal? ” Eriksen questions rhetorically. “The accident board doesn’t mention that.”

‘Clearly in violation’
He believes it’s clear “that KNM Helge Ingstad opted for a dangerous course at high speed, without having an updated and correct picture of the situation or the necessary understanding of risk.” Its “panicky” last-minute decision to swing port (to the left) instead of starboard (to the right) “is clearly in violation of maritime regulations.” Vessels on a collision course must always swing starboard to avoid hitting one another, he claimed: “The accident board doesn’t mention that either,” but rather has made a point of noting that the tanker’s decklights were on during departure from the terminal, and reporting how that hindered the frigate from seeing that the tanker’s navigational lamps were lit as well. The tanker’s owner and other maritime experts have claimed it’s standard practice to keep deck lights on until out at sea and deny any wrongdoing.

A more detailed and conclusive report may not be released for months. Meanwhile, the frigate lies mostly underwater after the collision that will cost the Norwegian Navy and taxpayers billions of kroner and reduced maritime defense. “Even the most prominent maritime lawyers will have challenges absolving the frigate from the most responsibility,” claims Eriksen. Defense officials remain mostly mum, there’s been no word at all from the captain of the vessel and Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen has complained that Norwegian media have been asking too many questions and should wait with reporting more on the possible cause of the collision until the board and a police investigation are concluded.

Around 350 people are now working every day in connection with the salvage of the frigate. Commander Berdal calls the divers’ work “challenging” and dependent on good weather. Storms have delayed the operation which now involves wrapping chains around the frigate in an effort to eventually hoist it onto a special vessel equipped with huge cranes. The vessel won’t be raised until December 25 at the earliest.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund