Crew could have saved their frigate

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Norway’s accident investigations commission has determined that the crew of the doomed frigate KNM Helge Ingstad failed to close doors and hatches when they abandoned ship after colliding with a tanker in November 2018. A full shutdown, claims the commission, could have kept the frigate from becoming a total loss if the crew had been better trained.

The once-proud frigate Helge Ingstad suffered an embarrassing fate in the early morning hours of November 8, 2018. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Jakob Østheim

The Norwegian Navy was under harsh criticism once again on Wednesday, when the commission (Havari-kommisjonen) delivered its second report on the collision.  It has turned into a costly embarrassment that could have been avoided, according to the commission.

“If the crew had been better trained, they would have had a better understanding of how to save the ship,” claimed Dag Liseth of the commission’s maritime division. The report itself notes that the Navy did not provide the crew with a “good enough understanding to be able to handle the scenario they found themselves in on the night of the accident.”

The commission has already delivered its first report on the loss of the NOK 5 billion frigate that cited a series of mistakes and misunderstandings on board the frigate before it crashed into a fully-laden oil tanker leaving Equinor’s Sture terminal northwest of Bergen. The first report also found fault, however, with those in charge of maritime traffic in the area at the time and with lighting on board the tanker, which the frigate’s crew mistook to be the refinery itself.

The new report covers what happened after the Helge Ingstad rammed into the tanker Sola TS in the Hjeltefjorden as it was sailing to its home port at the Norwegian naval base Haakonsvern in Bergen after taking part in NATO’s largest exercise in Norway ever. Norway’s defense ministry and Naval officials themselves have praised the captain and crew for evacuating the vessel safely with no loss of life and only few minor injuries.

The frigate was eventually refloated but was so badly damaged that repairs would have cost more than building a new vessel. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Emil Wenaas Larsen

Now the commission concludes that its “most serious” findings are linked to a lack of training and instruction “at a higher level” than the crew on board Helge Ingstad had. Liseth blames the Navy and defense command for that.

“We’re talking about a military vessel that’s meant to tolerate a gash in its hull and damage from water pouring in,” Liseth said. “We must be able to expect that such a ship can be damaged but still function in a war operation.”

Instead it was evacuated with doors and hatches left open. “The crew viewed the water flowing in as so extensive that the vessel would be lost anyway,” the report stated, and an evacuation order had been issued. “Our assessment shows that a shutdown could have hindered the capsizing,” the commission claimed.

When the vessel grounded shortly after the collision, even more water flowed in. That could have further raised already high stress levels among officers and crew on board.

“I won’t say that the frigate should have been saved,” Liseth told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), rather that it could have been. He also noted that “it’s natural” that the crew, given the circumstances they were under, “chose to abandon ship.”

‘Important report’ and an expensive lesson
The collision also cut all electricity on board. The crew on the bridge believed they’d lost control over the vessel and it grounded just 10 minutes later. It took around a hour more to get all 137 people on board off the vessel. Both the commission and the defense department’s own investigation have concluded, however, that it remained theoretically possible to operate its machinery.

That can also reflect a lack of adequate training. “They didn’t understand that various systems were still functioning,” said Kristian Haugnes of the commission. The collision was strong, though, and the crew on the bridge didn’t know whether anyone below deck had been been killed. In the end, the once-proud frigate began to sink where it lay.

Naval officials claimed on Wednesday that the new report from the commission will help strengthen safety at sea. “This is an important report,” Navy chief Rune Andersen told NRK. “The most important thing for us after this accident has been to gain experience and examine all sides of it. There’s a lot to learn here.”

It’s been an expensive lesson, not least from the taxpayers’ perspective and for NATO, after one of its member lost 20 percent of its frigate capacity. The Helge Ingstad, after being stripped of sensitive equipment, was recently towed to a scrapyard where it’s been torn apart, after less than a decade of service.

Few heads have rolled since, despite all the human error involved and rules that were broken. The admiral in charge of the has retired, but the head of the Navy itself now heads Norway’s military intelligence unit. The frigate’s captain has had his say. Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen is also still in office. Berglund