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Commission: Scandinavian Star Unfit to Sail Night of 158 Deaths

January 31, 1991

OSLO, Norway (AP) _ A three-nation commission concluded Thursday that the Scandinavian Star ferry was unfit to sail the night an arsonist set it ablaze, killing 158 people.

The six-member panel, appointed by the governments of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, sharply criticized the ill-fated ship’s owner, VR DaNo Lines, its captain, crew and Norwegian rescue officials in the April 7 disaster.

The panel urged the Scandinavian countries to require sprinklers and fire detectors, which it said may have saved the victims. It also called for compulsory safety-training for crews on ferries sailing Nordic seas.

The Bahamas-registered ferry was on an overnight run from Oslo, Norway, to Copenhagen, Denmark, when a fire in the car deck spread through the ship. It had 383 passengers, most of them Norwegian, and 99 crew aboard.

The commission was asked to review the spread of the fire, the ship’s condition, crew, rescue efforts and safety regulations. It had no power to recommend prosecution or impose new rules.

Many of its findings echoed those of a maritime inquiry held last year in Copenhagen.

The panel’s report, delivered to the Norwegian Justice Ministry, said the Scandinavian Star was basically well-maintained but had an untrained, often overworked crew.

″The shipowners should have understood that concern about safe operations was set aside when they put a ship with so many passengers and such an untrained crew in service in such a short time,″ said a news release summarizing the report.

DaNo acquired the ship on March 30 and had it sail April 1 with a crew that had 90 percent of its workers being new on the job, the commission said. The 465-foot ship was 19 years old.

The crew lacked emergency training, were unfamiliar with the ship and did not use all available equipment to help passengers escape smoke and fire, the report said. Some of the crew were Portuguese and could not understand orders in English, said the 1,000-page document.

According to the commission, 99 victims died in their cabins. Most others perished in corridors attempting to escape, possibly confused by inadequate exit instructions, the report said. Most of the signs were in English, Spanish and Portuguese, rather than a Scandinavian language.

Norwegian police have never named the arsonist. The Norwegian news agency NTB has reported officials suspect a previously convicted Danish arsonist who died in the fire.

″It is overwhelmingly likely that the fire was arson,″ said commission chairman Tore Schei.

″Before the disastrous fire was started, there was another fire started that was put out. There was suspicion of a pyromaniac at work, yet measures were not taken to protect the ship,″ said the report.

″It happened very quickly,″ said Schei. The report said the first fire was set about 1:45 a.m., the second one 15 minutes later. All victims had probably succumbed by 2:45 a.m., the report said.

Schei said the fire may have smoldered for eight minutes before it spread to a wall and then upwards through the ship. Automatic fire sprinklers or detectors could probably have prevented the tragedy, he said.

Schei said Lloyd’s Register, which inspected the ship six months before the disaster, should have noticed three fire sirens were missing and the lifeboats were poorly maintained, with rot hidden by paint.

He said the fire sirens were difficult to hear in parts of the ship and they did not sound long enough.

The commission said the ferry’s Norwegian captain, Hugo Larsen, should not have sailed until the crew was properly trained.

Schei said pressure from the ship’s owners ″does not relieve the captain of responsibility.″ The report also said Larsen, who left the burning ferry and later returned, should have remained to lead the rescue.

The report said the Norwegian Rescue Center was too slow in sending specially equipped firefighters to the ship by helicopter and depended too heavily on early reports that all passengers had been rescued.

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