Tuesday, August 24, 1999 Published at 15:28 GMT 16:28 UK
Q&A: Investigating the collision
What could have gone wrong?
At this stage the cause of the collision is a mystery. Although it happened at night, conditions were clear and both vessels would have been equipped with radar to detect other nearby ships. Shipping in the busy English Channel is separated into "lanes" for each direction, and it appears the Ever Decent, travelling from Thamesport to Zeebrugge, was in the process of crossing one of these lanes at the time of the crash.
Who investigates collisions of this kind?
The situation is complicated by the fact that this happened in international waters. If the ships had collided within the 12-mile limit of UK territorial waters it would have been investigated by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch, part of the Department of Transport. As it stands, it is up to the countries where the vessels are registered, Panama and the Bahamas, to investigate. However those "flag countries" may voluntarily ask the British authorities to investigate on their behalf. In addition to any official inquiries the shipping companies themselves will want to ask their own questions, and the US-based Norwegian Cruise Line which operates the Norwegian Dream has already announced that "a full investigation is under way".
What sort of questions will the inquiries be asking?
The key question will be how two ships equipped with modern navigational systems could collide in good conditions. Both captains will be questioned closely on exactly what kind of watch was being kept at the time, and on any manoeuvres which may have put the vessels in danger. The radar equipment will be checked, and if no mechanical faults are discovered the level of human error or negligence will be assessed.
What powers will the inquiry have?
This will depend on exactly who carries it out. When inquiries are carried out by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch the focus is on making recommendations to avoid similar accidents in future rather than pinning blame on individuals. It will be up to the shipping companies and the flag countries to consider any disciplinary action against the captains or crew.
Should this raise safety fears about shipping in the Channel?
Considering the huge volume of shipping streaming through the narrow Dover Straits and the stormy weather it often has to negotiate, incidents of this kind are thankfully very rare. The last very serious accident was a collision in thick fog off Ostend between a BP oil tanker, the British Trent, and a South Korean bulk carrier in 1993, in which nine people died. Some have argued, however, that safety could be improved if ship captains were under a legal obligation to follow the instructions of coastguards, in the same way that airline pilots must submit to the authority of air traffic controllers.