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Polish Ferry Disaster Raises Safety Issue Of Design

January 16, 1993

BERLIN (AP) _ German seamen’s unions have raised safety complaints about the widely used ″roll on-roll off″ ferry design after a Polish ferry sank in the Baltic sea, killing as many as 52.

Shipping experts say 3,000 such vessels, called ″ro-ro″ ships, are in use around the world. After the British ferry Herald of Free Enterprise capsized off the Belgian coast in 1987, taking 193 lives, design improvements were introduced for ships built after 1990.

But the Polish ferry Jan Heweliusz, built in 1977 in Norway, had not been upgraded. It capsized before dawn Thursday about 20 miles east of the German island of Ruegen, on a voyage from Swinoujscie in Poland to the Swedish port of Ystad.

German Navy. Capt. Helmut Meier said that 39 bodies had been recovered by Friday afternoon, and that another 13 people were missing and presumed dead. Meier, of the German Navy’s Fleet Command in Gluecksburg, said the total number on board was 61.

The cause of the disaster still has not been determined. There was speculation that the cargo of heavy trucks and rail freight cars shifted during a fierce storm with winds up to 90 mph, sending the 3,015-ton vessel into an irreversible list.

The Jan Heweliusz, like other ro-ro ships, was designed with doors in both bow and stern so that trailer trucks can roll on and off without tricky reversing.

Critics say the inherent safety defect is the wide, open vehicle deck running the length of the vessel, without bulkheads to stop water or loose cargo from pitching to one side and unbalancing the ship.

″Only in these ships is it possible that a single vehicle can tear loose and set off a chain reaction that can bring the entire ship to a capsize,″ said Frank Mueller, a Hamburg sea captain who heads the merchant marine section of German office workers’ union.

Eike Eulen, seamen’s board member of the union of government workers, said it was a scandal there weren’t more survival suits on the Jan Jeweliusz. The nine survivors were crew members who had special protective suits that gave them several hours of life expectancy in the ice-cold water.

A spokesman of the Chamber of Shipping, the British ship-owners’ association in London, said the timetable for safety improvements of ro-ro ships would be discussed in April at a meeting of the Marine Safety Committee of the International Maritime Organization.

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