S01E04 Fire on the Star: M/S Scandinavian Star Fire

January 9, 2013 | By | Comments More

It’s Easter, 1990. People board the ferry, “Scandinavian Star”, for the night crossing from Norway to Denmark. Many are off to visit family for the holiday weekend. Some will reach their destinations; but others will be dead in less than six hours. In the early hours of the morning a fire breaks out in a corridor on Deck 3. Many passengers are sleep in their cabins on the decks above; they are completely unaware of the blaze. Within minutes fatal fumes are produced, they filter rapidly to the decks above. People are overcome in their sleep. The investigators piece together the events of the night second by second. They discover why the fire spread so swiftly and why it was so toxic. Was the fire an accident or was it a case of arson?


In 1990, she was sold to Vognmandsruten and put on DA-NO Linjen’s route between Oslo, Norway, and Frederikshavn, Denmark. As the ship had changed from a casino ship to a passenger ferry, a new crew needed to be trained in just 10 days. Master mariner Captain Emma Tiller interviewed for the National Geographic Channel’s documentary series Seconds from Disaster stated that 6 to 8 weeks would be a reasonable period to train a crew for a ship this size. The documentary went on to explain that many of the crew could not speak English, Norwegian or Danish, thus further reducing the effectiveness of the response to the emergency.

During the night of 7 April 1990, at about 2 a.m. local time, two fires broke out on deck 3 in the passenger section of the ship. The subsequent investigation into the disaster discovered that the second fire was deliberately set (the first fire started about 15 minutes earlier and may have been deliberate as well). Though the bulkheads were made of asbestos, the melamine resin laminate used as a decorative covering was extremely flammable and fed the fire, allowing it to spread throughout deck 3. These laminates also produced hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide when burned, which contributed to many of the deaths on board. As deck 3 also contained a car storage area there were large fans that were used to remove exhaust fumes. These fans sucked up the smoke and rapidly spread it throughout decks 4 and 5 of the ship.


When the captain learned of the fire, he attempted to close the fire doors on deck 3 to prevent the fire from spreading. The fire doors did not close automatically, and needed to be closed manually by pressing the button near the doors. As the doors were open, the fire was able to travel along the length of the ship. Later the captain ordered his crew to turn off the air conditioning system as the captain imagined it was feeding air to the fire. Once the ventilation system was shut off smoke was able to enter cabins and suffocate trapped passengers. The captain ordered the alarms to be activated, told everyone to abandon ship, and sent out a mayday request. Most people could not hear the alarms over the general noise and confusion on the ship, and many did not wake up. The captain and crew ultimately abandoned ship before all the passengers had been evacuated, leaving many still on board the burning ship even after it was towed to harbour (allegedly the captain and crew were unaware how many passengers had escaped).

Many passengers had difficulty escaping from the fire for several reasons: 1) Many people did not hear the alarms, therefore they did not wake up, 2) They could not find their way out because the thick smoke made it nearly impossible to find the nearest escape routes, 3) The smoke contained poisonous hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide fumes, causing unconsciousness and quick death, and 4) The many Portuguese in the crew did not speak or understand Norwegian or English, were unfamiliar with the ship, and had never practiced a fire drill, so they could not communicate with each other or the passengers and did not know how to respond to the fire.


The ship was towed to Lysekil in Sweden where the fire department managed to put out the fire in 10 hours. As a result of the fire 158 people died (approximately one third of the people on board); another victim died two weeks later from his injuries. The majority (136) of those killed were Norwegian.

The Scandinavian Star had another fire prior to 1990. On 15 March 1988, while sailing for SeaEscape on a Caribbean cruise, a fire started in the engine room when she was about 50 nautical miles (90 km) northeast of Cancun, Mexico. The ship was carrying 439 passengers and 268 crew members. The ship lost power and her fire fighting oxygen system malfunctioned (it would have let the firefighters breathe while fighting the fire). The inability of the crew members to communicate with each other and with passengers was a serious concern and created confusion during the fire fighting and evacuation activities.

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Category: Latest Episodes, Season 1, Ship Disaster

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