This chronicle is written by Tore Brandtzæg in the aftermath of the recent Viking Sky accident. The following is an international adaption of his original NRK version in Norwegian.
Viking Sky – what’s next?
“The main objective for Norway as a nation is to prevent major accidents, not to show the world that we are good at dealing with them.”
First and foremost, a heartfelt thank you to all those who assisted. Especially you who did a great job, but perhaps was not seen and recognized. Know that all of us in Norway are very grateful that you – particularly you – contributed during this accident.
A Step Back in Time
At the bottom of the aircraft stairs, a black car was waiting. I looked down the runway – towards a completely shattered aircraft. An Airbus A330 – a large aircraft. I thought: “Can I manage to stand tall, and handle another one of these?” All 104 died – no, a little miracle boy of nine survived. A few minutes later I was standing in the airline’s crisis room – at the top end, in front of the blackboard.
The venue was Tripoli, Libya – while Colonel Gaddafi was still the boss. “Can you lead us through this?” the boss’s son asked. He was considerably better armed than I was. I then led the international effort, because I was the one with the most experience.
I work as an international crisis manager for enterprise accidents and have done so for many years. At the sharp end.
The corporate goal of each accident is to deploy a corporate emergency response that follows national and international laws, standards and global best practices.
Both the coastal ferries of Hurtigruten were harbored at the time of the accident. The weather was deemed to be too bad. The wave height was 8-15 meters with a storm-force wind.
According to the press conference of the Norwegian Maritime Authority, the waves and wind forces caused the ship to pitch and roll severely. These forces made the engines stop because of too low levels of engine lube. The engines stopped automatically. No engines – heavy wind and waves – heavy pitch and roll – no usable lifeboats – only helicopters equipped with winches. Given this scenario, the rescue operation took considerable long time – even for the helicopter heroes.
“ Norway is not world champions of civil emergency response.
Viking Sky is a relatively small cruise ship, with a total of 1,376 persons on board during this voyage. The largest cruise ship arriving Bergen this summer, is three times as large, with a passenger capacity of more than 4,300. Viking Sky had no offshore survival suits onboard assigned to each passenger – none.
The Norwegian helicopter pilots are adamant that this was the maximum they could manage. Six dedicated Search & Rescue (SAR) helicopters were used; Two from the 330 rescue squadron of the Royal Norwegian Airforce and four from Equinor’s SAR offshore service. Norway has access to a significant number of large helicopters used in the offshore oil industry. Their usability is limited in a rescue operation since they are not equipped with a winch, medical staff, etc.
470 passengers from Viking Sky were evacuated using helicopter winches during an 18-hour drama. 27 of them were physically injured. 470 passengers in 18 hours – even with everything Norway had available at the scene – provide a scary small number of evacuated passengers per hour. The 330 Rescue Squadron was honest and admitted to being scared by the thought of how this accident could have ended.
The Department of Marine Technology at NTNU argues that Viking Sky should not have left the harbor under those weather conditions. Their expertise is probably among the best in the world on this subject matter. The NTNU professor Svein Kristiansen is calling the incident a scandal.
The offshore flotel platform Alexander Kielland capsized in eight to ten meter high waves in the North Sea, located just 100 meters from the oil platform Edda. 123 people died. It happened 39 years ago. It is still extremely difficult to rescue people in rough offshore weather. The Kielland accident caused Norway to implement completely new standards for safety and emergency response for the oil and gas activities on the Norwegian continental shelf.
Restrictions at Sea
Now it is time for a new round of civil emergency response plans; this time for cruise ships and other floating vessels accessing Norwegian territorial waters. These waters are enormous – including the North Sea, Svalbard and the Barents Sea towards the Arctic.
Should a sea captain still decide bad weather operations by himself? More extreme weather makes it rougher at sea. It’s not okay that a cruise captain thunders northward without considerable experience from these areas and still being within our national search and rescue reach.
If you go outside of our national reach, please inform your passengers of doing so in advance. As a nation, we do not have the emergency reach to rescue you and your loved ones in all areas of our territorial waters.
It’s a long time since we stopped the individual captain’s decision making in the air and on land. We close mountain passes, we stop cars and trains, we ground aircraft and we evacuate people when needed.
We cannot accept that we can have hundreds or even thousands of casualties because we, as a nation, do not put a halt to marine traffic in bad weather.
“ The lack of strategy and plans suddenly became very visible.
The main objective for Norway as a nation is to prevent major accidents, not to show the world that we are good at dealing with them.
Our national self-confidence in search and rescue operations must not be so high that we believe we had dealt as elegantly with a whole cruise ship shipwrecked on our shores. Norway is not world champions of civil emergency.
Seen from Above
Some observations: Norway does not have a national civil emergency response plan, neither carried forward annually nor debated comprehensively. Norway does not have a map showing clear limitations of our civil emergency rescue services.
Norway lacks significant legislation for civil emergency preparedness and response. Norway does not have a separate emergency response department. Norway does not have a dedicated civil emergency committee in Parliament. Norway does not have a national emergency hub for civil emergency response supporting the counties.
Norway has the resources to buy whatever we want, but we are not good at procurement and implementation of national preparedness materials.
Norway has a virtually free movement on land and at sea policy, and it creates many dangerous situations, especially with tourists involved. Temporary traffic ban in hazardous areas is not enforced extensively by the police.
Norwegian Leadership Responsibilities
Dear Prime Minister Erna Solberg, where is our national civil emergency response plan? The current Granavolden platform says something about the police, then not so much. Other party programs are at best thin on this subject.
“ Norway lacks significant legislation for civil emergency preparedness and response.
You said in Parliament a few days after the Viking Sky accident, that our civil emergency response in the north is not good enough. But you do not need to drag “north” right up to the Arctic, it is currently more than enough with the mainland and Svalbard. Your statement is true, but where do you start? Where is your plan? Where’s round table conference to get input? Where are the governmental investigations and reports?
The lack of civil emergency strategy and plans suddenly became very visible.
And dear Jonas Støre, leader of the opposition – do not take political advantage of accidents. Talk to Erna and achieve a bipartisan agreement on a process forward that delivers what we need: That the entire parliament unites behind our new civil emergency response plans.
And to you, shipowner Torstein Hagen of Viking Cruises: You were lucky! You’ve got lots of help from many in Norway. But I’m not sure if you have sufficiently good emergency checklists on your desk. You should compensate NGOs who have helped you.
It applies in civil aviation – and ships carry many more at one time than airplanes do. Moreover, it is common courtesy. The amount should be at least NOK 25 million to a joint fund for NGOs participating in the coastal preparedness in Norway. Think about it – but not for long.
For the rest of us, it’s time for spring cleaning. The subject is our national civil emergency preparedness – and not to divert the importance of this conversation.