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Precede RUEGEN Polish Ferry Overturns During Storm in Baltic Sea, 52 Feared Dead

January 14, 1993

RUEGEN, Germany (AP) _ A Polish ferry capsized during a fierce storm in the Baltic Sea today, and German television said 52 people were believed to have died.

Nine survivors were rescued and 35 bodies were recovered, said Helmut Meier, spokesman of the German Fleet Command in Gluecksburg. He said initial confusion led to earlier reports that 14 people had been rescued.

The ferry overturned early this morning as a storm packing winds of up to 90 mph raged across the Baltic, apparently causing its cargo of heavy trucks and rail freight cars to shift. Many passengers jumped into the ice-cold waters but survival times in such water is only a matter of minutes, officials said.

German police in Stralsund said the vessel, the Jan Heweliusz, sank between Poland and Sweden, about 20 miles east of the German island of Ruegen.

″We’ve got about 17 missing right now, and they’re probably all inside the ship,″ Meier said in a telephone interview. He said divers would probably not be able to enter the ferry until Friday because of the stormy conditions.

Some survivors were in critical condition from exposure to water temperatures of 36 degrees, according to German rescue workers in Stralsund, a coastal town near the Polish border.

The 412-foot vessel had developed severe lists twice before, in 1978 and 1982, and a fire started in a truck on board the ferry in 1989, said Lars-Ove Forsberg, head of the Swedish-Polish ferry company Pol-Lines. He said there had not been any serious injuries in the three earlier incidents.

The ferry passed an inspection in August, and was in good enough condition to weather a storm, according to Swedish Maritime Authority inspector Charles Nilsson, the Swedish news agency reported.

The 3,015-ton ferry was carrying 29 crew members and 39 passengers from Swinoujscie, Poland, to the Swedish port of Ystad, according to Wlodzimierz Matuszewski, the ferry company’s director, who spoke on Polish television.

Other reports put the number of passengers of 60 to 64. Most were said to be Poles, with some Swedes, Danes and Hungarians.

During its main midday newscast, Germany’s ARD television said 52 people were believed dead.

Matuszewski said the captain radioed about 2 a.m. that the ship had developed a list of 20 degrees, which increased to 70 degrees - a near- capsized position - by 4:57 a.m.

The Danish Navy’s Operative Command said Danish authorities monitored the first distress signal at 4:48 a.m. and immediately alerted German authorities in Bremen and sent a helicopter and two rescue vessels.

Rescuers from Germany, Denmark and Poland had at least four helicopters, four rescue ships and three ferries in action Thursday afternoon, and German divers were in position to try to find any survivors.

But Andreas Lubkowitz of the German rescue center in Bremen, said the divers were unable to entered the vessel because of high winds and waves of up to 13 feet high.

German police in Stralsund initially said the capsized vessel had sunk, but later the German Fleet Command in Gluecksburg said the keel was still visible about 2:30 p.m.

Apparently air was trapped in the vessel, and survivors might still be trapped inside, spokesman Lothar Buhr said. ″Miracles have happened before and people have survived, but after an hour with the water so cold chances are very slim,″ Buhr said.

ARD television showed aerial views of the overturned ship, its red bottom washed by surging waves. An overturned lifeboat bobbed nearby.

Polish Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka appointed a special commission to investigate the accident and said the government would help victims and their families.

In Stralsund, head physician Michael Kentsch said one Polish crew member had survived because he was wearing heavy clothing when he jumped into the freezing water wearing a life jacket.

Another survivor was in critical condition with his body temperature down to 81 degrees, Kentsch said.

The capsizing recalled the 1987 disaster off the Belgian coast when the ferry Herald of Free Enterprise capsized and 193 people died.

Update hourly