As investigations begin into the recent grounding off the south coast of Ireland of the combination carrier Kowloon Bridge, questions are being asked whether the accident could have been prevented.

The 166,410 metric ton deadweight vessel began developing cracks two weeks ago while on a voyage from Canada to Hunterston, Scotland, but the circumstances of her plight have added strength to the calls for a thorough investigation into the mysterious loss of one of her sisterships six years ago.The British government has repeatedly refused calls to hold a formal inquiry into the loss of the 169,044 dwt bulk carrier Derbyshire, despite evidence that her sisterships now at sea may also be at risk.

The incident of the Kowloon Bridge is also refueling arguments about the effectiveness of the world's ship classification societies in assessing and maintaining ship safety.

The Hong Kong-registered Kowloon Bridge is one of six sisterships, all built in the early 1970s by the British Swan Hunter yard and all classed by Lloyd's Register of Shipping, the world's leading ship classification society.

After one of these ships, the 169,044 dwt. bulk carrier Derbyshire disappeared without trace in 1980, interested parties started investigations, which revealed disturbing facts about the sisterships.

It was learned that only the first of the six ships, the Furness Bridge, was built strictly to the original architectural plans. The other five had had identical modifications to their longitudinal hatch side girders.

One of them, the Tyne Bridge, suffered a serious deck fracture across frame number 65 on a voyage across the North Sea in 1982, and this became the suspected area of weakness in the vessels.

In total, four of the sisterships were found to have developed cracks in their hulls and underwent repairs in 1982. Until the Kowloon Bridge developed cracks this month, the vessels had not reported any further problems.

Britain's Department of Transport compiled inconclusive and conflicting reports about the Derbyshire's loss, the last of which, in March this year, claimed there is no justification for drawing parallels between the Derbyshire and the Tyne Bridge. However, earlier DOT reports, including one in July last year, had said that what stands out among the cumulative evidence of the ships is that "all suffered, to a varying degree, cracking in the vicinity of the 65 watertight bulkhead."

However, the DOT has steadfastly refused to comply with subsequent demands to hold a full, formal inquiry.

Ironically, relatives of the 44 who perished with the Derbyshire and leaders of the National Union of Seamen and the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers have, with the support of opposition Labour Party transport spokesman, Roger Scott, been pressing since this autumn for such an inquiry.

Since the incident of the Kowloon Bridge, which like the Derbyshire was carrying a cargo of iron ore, Mr. Scott has been particularly active in the House of Commons in pressing the government to fully inquire into both ship losses.

Finally, last Monday junior Transport Minister, Michael Spicer, agreed that the government would investigate the breaking up of the Kowloon Bridge, and the following day he went a big step further and said that once this report has been studied he would decide if there was cause for appointing a formal investigation into the loss of the Derbyshire.

Even before Mr. Spicer had announced these concessions both the DOT and Lloyd's Register had already sent surveyors to the Kowloon Bridge.

Both surveyors stressed that the cracks found were entirely consistent with the effects of the gales the Kowloon Bridge had experienced in the Atlantic, while Lloyd's Register said the damage "does not, repeat not, affect the structure in way of bulkhead 65 highlighted in the DOT report on the Derbyshire."

But it has been argued that the investigations are not being carried out entirely impartial by parties.

When Swan Hunter was denationalized as part of the breaking up of British Shipbuilders the particular yard that had built the six sisterships had already been closed and was not included. Therefore, liability for defective construction would still lie with the state-owned company, and the government.

Lloyd's Register, which classed all of the sisterships, would similarly be placed in an embarrassing position if it were learned the vessels it approved had always been structurally unsafe.

Over the past few years, in fact, ship classification societies have come under the criticism that they may be too lax in enforcing safety standards as they chase business in a recession-hit shipping industry.

There have been many incidents of ships running into difficulties after classification societies have allowed them to postpone major routine surveys.

If the British government comes up with anything definite in its investigation of the Kowloon Bridge, and if it decides to hold a formal inquiry into the loss of the Derbyshire, then the major gain will be that maybe information will emerge that can improve the way we ensure the safety of all merchant shipping.

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