Two Danish crew members of a capsized barge were missing in the freezing Baltic Sea on Monday after an overnight collision with a British vessel in a busy maritime route off Sweden.
With the pair unlikely to survive long in water temperatures around 4 Celsius, rescue boats and a helicopter hunted for hours. There was also hope they might still be inside an air pocket within the hull of the overturned Karin Hoj.
The 55-meter Danish barge and 90-meter Scot Carrier were sailing in the same direction off the island of Bornholm when they crashed in fog and darkness at 3.30 a.m. (0230 GMT), maritime agencies in Denmark and Sweden said.
At least nine boats and a helicopter combed waters near the wreckage-strewn site, while the overturned Karin Hoj was towed away to shallower waters where Swedish divers were ready to investigate the hull without risk of being dragged down.
Denmark’s Joint Operations Centre (JOC) said it was still possible the pair were stuck inside an enclosed area.
“Once the ship is aground … divers can search for the missing crew members as well as minimize the risks for any oil spill,” Swedish Coastguard operations leader Fredrik Gustafsson said.
The Danish Meteorological Institute said the fog was not dense and conditions were not unusual for the time of year.
Sweden’s Coastguard said an investigation was looking into possible “gross negligence.” The criminal probe was later widened to cover several potential crimes including “gross marine intoxication,” said Jonatan Tholin, head of the preliminary probe.
With events seeming to have unfolded fast, the JOC said there was no sign lifeboats or other emergency equipment were used by the Karin Hoj’s two-person crew.
The Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare said people cannot normally survive much more than an hour without protective gear in waters that cold.
“I can confirm an accident has happened but I do not know the circumstances,” Soren Hoj, managing director of Rederiet Hoj which owns the Karin Hoj, told Reuters.
The barge was sailing from Sodertalje in Sweden to Nykobing Falster in southern Denmark, while the British-registered Scot Carrier was sailing to Montrose on Scotland’s east coast.
The British ship was operating under its own power and its crew were safe after the crash. Its owner Scotline said it could not comment on details but was assisting local authorities.
The Swedish Maritime Administration (SMA) said the Danish vessel was empty of cargo and it was unclear what if anything the British ship was carrying.
The waters between Sweden and Denmark see large amounts of maritime traffic. Collisions are rare though in 2006 a small Danish vessel sank after a crash with a Swedish boat, with all the crew rescued alive after bailing overboard.