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Health and safety

Scandinavian Star – a preventable tragedy?

22 September 2021

Andrew Draper reports on allegations of negligence and an official cover-up as a new Danish government panel prepares to investigate the background to the disaster aboard Scandinavian Star

The former head of the Danish Seamen’s Union, Henrik Berlau, has renewed his attack on the Danish Maritime Authority (DMA) over what he claims is its inadequate supervisory role of the Scandinavian Star passenger ferry.

The vessel caught fire on April 7, 1990, killing 159 passengers and crew.

Mr Berlau has criticised the lack of reporting by the DMA to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) as a failure to learn from the tragedy. He has submitted a dossier of claims to the new investigation panel established by the Danish government in December 2020.

This panel will investigate whether the DMA fulfilled its obligations and is separate to another investigation into whether the fire was arson as part of an insurance fraud.

Alleged DMA failures

Mr Berlau sets out claims over some 100 pages of report that the DMA was not only negligent by failing to inspect and certify the vessel, but that it also broke the Danish law on ship safety. He claims:

  • The DMA broke the law on ship safety by allowing the ship to sail four times with passengers without hindrance, inspection or permission
  • The ship had no valid certificates allowing it to carry passengers when it arrived in Frederikshavn to start a new service
  • The DMA should have stopped the ship
  • After the fire, the DMA covered up its lack of inspection by claiming it was going to carry out an inspection at a later date in line with the MOU on Port State Control (PSC). Mr Berlau maintains the PSC does not cover passenger vessels in regular service between Danish and foreign ports
It is beyond all doubt that if the DMA had carried out an obligatory inspection of Scandinavian Star before it entered into service with passengers, the ship’s absent certificates, the size of the crew, the crew’s operational deficiencies and certificates, the ship’s lack of fire plan and evacuation, other technical faults and deficiencies would have been exposed. Henrik Berlau, former head of the Danish Seamen’s Union
Missed opportunities to inspect

He puts forward what he claims are varying explanations from the DMA as to why it did not carry out inspections before or after the ship entered into service between Denmark and Norway, including: not knowing the ship had entered into service on the route; not being required to inspect more than 25% of foreign-flagged vessels; DMA employees were on a course at the time; Scandinavian Star had not been selected for inspection; they were going to do it ‘before long’.

Mr Berlau maintains the DMA explanations were uncritically adopted as the basis for official answers in the Danish Parliament and elsewhere by ministers and the attorney general, but have never been tested or evaluated form a legal point of view.

Scandinavian Star was registered in the Bahamas, but Mr Berlau maintains that the DMA had an obligation to carry out a full inspection. He says: ‘It’s of crucial importance to seafarers that the authority responsible for checking safety at sea is credible and does not jump to white lies when it comes under pressure.’

Mr Berlau’s report states: ‘It is beyond all doubt that if the DMA had carried out an obligatory inspection of Scandinavian Star before it entered into service with passengers, the ship’s absent certificates, the size of the crew, the crew’s operational deficiencies and certificates, the ship’s lack of fire plan and evacuation, other technical faults and deficiencies would have been exposed. An order would have been issued for them to be rectified and fixed before the route started.’

A matter for Parliament

Mr Berlau makes the serious allegation that not only did the DMA fail in its legal duty to inspect (and detain) the ship, but that it lied after the fire about its failings to avoid criticism and financial liability for the Danish state. He claims the DMA adjusted notes and briefing papers after the disaster in order to support its views.

The report from Mr Berlau states that the Danish government’s industry and justice ministers ‘must have both been in no doubt’ that the law on ship safety had been broken. He concludes: ‘The DMA’s actions can be neither excused nor forgiven and the Danish Parliament should take legal steps to settle it.’

The DMA declined to respond to Mr Berlau’s allegations.


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