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Weather Blamed in Ferry Accident

November 29, 1999

OSLO, Norway (AP) _ A high-speed ferry that sank off Norway’s west coast may have set out in rougher weather than it was certified for, maritime officials said today, while police lowered their estimate of the number of people killed to at least 16.

The director of Norway’s state Maritime Directorate, Ivar A. Manum, said the catamaran Sleipner should not have been sailing in waters with wave heights over 3.3 feet. At the time of the accident, waves were estimated at between 6 and 10 feet high.

``It is serious when operating limits that have been set are broken,″ Manum said in an interview broadcast by the Norwegian state radio network NRK. ``The significance of that violation is something I won’t comment on. The investigating commission will be able to say more about it.″

The temporary restriction was imposed because the rescue equipment and escape routes aboard the 138-foot vessel, which had been in service for only three months, had not been tested in rough weather. The new catamaran was said to have the latest in navigation and rescue equipment.

The HSD ferry company, which owned the boat, rejected allegations that the captain had ignored restrictions, saying the order referred to the ``significant wave height,″ a measure of the average size of the largest waves, which can be much lower than the actual sizes.

``It is quite clear that the captain of the Sleipner did not violate the temporary restrictions,″ HSD managing director Arne Dvergsdal was quoted as saying by the Norwegian news agency NTB.

He also confirmed that a service expert from the boat’s builder, Austal Ships of Australia, was on the vessel’s command bridge at the time of the wreck. He declined to say what the expert was doing on the bridge until police had finished questioning him.

The boat ran aground on Friday night, severely damaging both bows of its twin hulls. It sank after about 45 minutes near Norway’s west coast. Police now believe 86 people may have been aboard, not 89 as first thought.

All of the passengers and crew ended up in the rough and frigid waters of the North Sea when the ferry went down off Boemla island, about 250 miles west of the capital, Oslo.

Helicopters and ships raced to the scene and rescued 70 people. The bodies of 10 Norwegians and one Kurdish resident of Norway were recovered immediately. Two more bodies, identified as Norwegians, were found Sunday by a remote-control submarine that located the wreck under about 330 feet of water. Three people are believed to be missing.

A severe storm in the area was hampering efforts to locate the remaining victims today.

The cause of the accident has not been determined. A maritime investigation and a separate inquiry by a special commission are pending, but the hard-to-see shoal the ferry slammed into was not marked with a light for night navigation. Local residents began a campaign over the weekend to raise funds for such a light.

Many survivors have complained of lack of guidance and information from the ship’s nine-member crew, which did not launch the vessel’s life rafts. The ferry company HSD has said the crew may have underestimated the extent of damage to the boat.

Update hourly