Ships 2

Scandinavian Star

Ships 3

Deadly Arson Fire

Arson Fire Ravaged The Scandinavian


By James Donahue

A suspected arson fire, an untrained crew and a poorly designed ship were forces that worked together to destroy the Danish-owned ferry Scandinavian Star and kill an estimated 158 passengers in the Skagerrak Strait off Norway during the early hours of April 7, 1990.

The ship was purchased in March, 1990 by the V. R. Dano Group and converted to replace an older ferry on a daily run between Frederikshaven, Denmark and Oslo, Norway. It was brought into service within days, making its first run with a largely inexperienced and poorly trained crew on April 1, only five days before the disaster. Many crew members were Filipino and could speak neither Norwegian or English.

The ferry left Oslo on its fatal run at 9:45 p.m. the previous night under the command of Captain Hugo Larsen. It carried a crew of 99 and 383 passengers.

During the early morning hours of April 7, a small fire was discovered and quickly extinguished in a pile of bedding outside Cabin 416 on the port side of Deck 4. Within 15 minutes, at about 2 a.m., a second fire broke out in the aft section of the starboard corridor of Deck 3. This fire was not discovered in time and it was soon out of control. Both fires were believed to have been deliberately set.

Launched in France in 1971 as the Massalia, the ship was first employed as a Mediterranean cruise ship. Later it operated as the Stena Baltica, Island Fiesta, and was used for cruises between Tampa, Florida, and Cozumel, Mexico. The rooms and hallways were coated with a melamine resin laminate used as a decorative covering, and this was highly flammable, thus feeding the flames. It also produced deadly hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide gasses when it burned, which killed many passengers before they could escape from the cabins.

Large fans in the car storage area on deck 3 were running. They were designed to remove exhaust fumes, but during the fire they sucked up the smoke and spread it throughout decks 4 and 5.

When he learned of the fire, Captain Larsen ordered the fire doors on deck 3 closed in an effort to keep the fire from spreading. But the doors did not close automatically and required someone to do it manually. Thus the fire spread freely through open doorways along the length of the ship.

Larsen next ordered the air conditioning system turned off, believing it to be feeding the fire. But this closed the ship’s ventilation system allowing smoke to enter the cabins and suffocate passengers trapped in them.

The Filipino crew members not only suffered a language barrier, they were unfamiliar with the ship and had never practiced a fire drill. They had no idea how to respond to the fire.

An investigation revealed that sprinkler heads were plugged with rust, there was a defective fire door on the car deck, a fire door was missing on deck 6, and three alarm bells were missing from the ship’s fire alarm system. Because of the missing bells, an estimated 37 percent of the passengers asleep in the cabins were not awakened by the alarm.

Finally, the captain and crew abandoned ship before all of the passengers were evacuated. It was said many passengers were still on board the burning ship even after it was towed to Lysekil, Sweden, where the fire department extinguished the flames.

The 1990 fire was the second blaze to sweep the Scandinavian Star. While carrying 439 passengers and 268 crew members on a Caribbean cruise in March, 1988, a fire broke out in the engine room. During the course of fighting the fire, the ship lost power and the oxygen system malfunctioned.

The deadly fire off Sweden’s coast was not the end of this ship. The burned ship was towed to Southampton where it was sold on auction to Italian owners and renamed Regal Voyager. The new owners rebuilt it for ferry service between Tangier and Port Vendres. Later it was on a ferry route between Port Isabel and Puerto Cortes, and finally between Santo Domingo and San Juan.

The ship was scrapped in 2004.


Scandinavian Star 1971