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Scandinavian Star case reopened

21 May 2021

Danish unions have welcomed the reopening of an official investigation into the arson on board the Scandinavian Star ferry that claimed the lives of 159 people in 1990.

While they say a fresh investigation is much needed to get to the bottom of the tragedy, not everyone is convinced it will come up with all the answers.

'Danish Engineers' Association chairman Lars Have Hansen doubts the investigators will be able to work out where the blame lies and fears the relatives will be left with an 'open wound that will not heal'.

'I hope, as do most people, that the loose ends can be investigated once and for all and any liability placed,' he says.

Society still owes a great debt to the families and survivors – to have a resolution or investigation that goes over all the documents and other matters, including insurance. Things up to now have been shameful. Ole Philipsen, director of the CO-Søfart union

The ferry caught fire shortly after setting sail from Oslo to Frederikshavn, Denmark, on 7 April 1990. At the time many people theorised that the massive fire was started deliberately in an attempt at insurance fraud, and that it then got out of control. There were accusations about who was behind it, as well as speculation about who the ultimate owners of the ship were. The ownership details were hugely complex and this made it difficult to pin blame. The vessel was registered in the Bahamas.

Ole Philipsen, director of the CO-Søfart union, which mainly represents navigators, ratings and catering officers, says relatives, families and survivors have been denied a thorough investigation for 31 years. 'Like many others, CO-Søfart has unsuccessfully pressed authorities and politicians to shine a light on the tragedy.'

Survivors erected a commemorative stone in Frederikshavn port last year, which Mr Philipsen believes will act as a focal point. 'Society still owes a great debt to the families and survivors – to have a resolution or investigation that goes over all the documents and other matters, including insurance. Things up to now have been shameful.'

Denmark's justice minister Nick Hækkerup reached cross-party agreement to set up an independent taskforce to examine ownership and insurance details over 18 months. If it finds new information, a fresh police investigation may follow.

Mike Axdal, who survived the fire but lost his father and brother in it, has campaigned almost obsessively since the tragedy. 'Today we got what we've been asking for. With the information we have, we regard the case as good as solved,' he says.

The Danish Seamen's Union covers the matter in its latest magazine and says: 'The cause of the Scandinavian Star catastrophe will probably be found in a chain of failure and neglect. A cynical Danish shipowner, a Danish-registered shell company as a front for shady American financiers with a shipping company in a tax haven, and a ship under the Bahamas flag.'

It claims inadequate or poor legislation, plus a laissez-faire attitude on the part of insurers, classification societies and maritime authorities, all contributed. The 3F union claimed years ago that the Danish Maritime Authority failed to prevent the vessel from setting sail despite its poor condition and lack of certification.


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