Twenty-four years ago today, on April 7, 1990, a fire broke out aboard a passenger ferry called the M/S Scandinavian Star which was then traveling through the Skagerrak, the strait that separates Denmark from Norway and Sweden. It was about 2:00 in the morning and most of the passengers on board the ship were asleep. Fifteen minutes later a second fire began, also on the third passenger deck, where the first one had started. Almost immediately the disaster, perhaps containable in the first few minutes, began to spiral out of control.

The captain of the vessel seems to have made one mistake after another. He tried to close bulkhead doors on the third deck with an automatic switch, but evidently didn’t realize that some of the doors needed to be closed manually. Thus the fire spread quickly through the passenger areas. Next the captain tried to starve the fire of oxygen. He did this by shutting off the air conditioning system. The result was that smoke began to pour into passenger cabins, causing many passengers to fall unconscious and eventually suffocate. Additionally, exhaust fans on the third deck, where cars were stored, sucked the smoke down to decks 4 and 5, causing even more deaths. The captain’s final mistake was to order his crew to abandon ship before they had ascertained how many passengers managed to reach escape routes. A total of 159 people, most of them Norwegians, died. Eventually the ship, still burning, was towed to a port in Sweden where firefighters put out the blaze 10 hours after it started.

The Scandinavian Star tragedy was one of the worst maritime disasters in Baltic waters, at least excluding incidents during the world wars.  As investigators looked into the incident, however, they uncovered clues that made it even more shocking: the fires seem to have been set deliberately. A police investigation concluded that a Danish man, a truck driver, probably began the blazes. As he died in the fire, there was not really any criminal case to pursue.

scandinavian star memorial

This memorial to the victims of the fire eerily suggests both the panic and the tragedy of that terrible night. This is one of the most interesting disaster memorials I’ve ever seen.

The initial investigations into the disaster were unsatisfying, so over the years the case kept getting re-opened and re-investigated. Two arson experts issued a report in 2013 about the fire. They stated that a total of six fires were started over a 36-hour period, and the Danish truck driver probably didn’t do it. Several crew members who had extensive knowledge of the technical aspects of the fire control system seem to have set blazes in very strategic parts of the ship at different times. These crew members, nine of them, came aboard the ship in Tampa. As it turned out the Scandinavian Star had also suffered a fire previously, in 1988. Thus, there was an eerie precedent for how things might play out.

But why would someone do this? Astonishingly, it seems that 159 people were murdered over insurance money. The Scandinavian Star was bought–exactly by whom isn’t clear, because ownership records were kept deliberately opaque–for $10 million, but it was insured for a value of $24 million. The insurance policies were evidently booked just before the fire. Police now believe that the owners of the vessel hired the nine Tampa crew members specifically to start the fire that raked the ship and killed 159 of their paying passengers. From my review of the recent press on the case–most of the articles are in Danish or Norwegian–it is unclear to me who these nine are and how many of them may still be at large, but Norwegian prosecutors definitely have to follow up.

The Scandinavian Star herself was salvaged, sold to another line and put back in service under another name. Probably very few of the passengers who traveled aboard her in the 1990s knew her grim history. In 2004 the ship was sold to Indian breakers for scrap. Guess where her rusting hulk ended up? Alang, India, the sad polluted place I profiled on this blog a few months ago.

The novel I’ve been working on for several years now, The Valley of Forever, involves a ship fire that is partially and very loosely based on the Scandinavian Star disaster. Today a memorial to the 159 victims of the fire has been erected on the Oslo waterfront. I believe I saw it when I was in Oslo a few years back, but at the time I didn’t know what I was looking at.

The news photo  of the Scandinavian Star burning was taken by Tor Arne Dalsnes and is probably owned by Scanpix, but I believe my use of it here constitutes fair use. The photo of the memorial is by Tristan Schmurr and is used under Creative Commons 2.5 (Attribution) license.