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Hableány Disaster: Captain on Trial for Failing to Render Assistance

MTI-Hungary Today 2024.01.16.

The former captain of Viking Idun, Topal F., accused of failing to render assistance, has pleaded not guilty in his criminal trial, which began on Monday. Viking Idun is the sister ship of the Viking Sigyn, which collided with the cruise ship Hableány in Budapest in May 2019, killing 27 people, and one South Korean passenger still missing. At the time of the tragedy, Viking Idun was sailing in close proximity to Viking Sigyn.

At the trial at the Pest Central District Court, the Ukrainian captain, Topal F., was contacted by the court by means of a teleconference, as he was unable to travel to Budapest due to the war in his country and his health. Last year, at the preparatory session in June, the prosecutor’s office proposed a suspended prison sentence and a ban on driving vessels, but he refused. The criminal trial was originally due to start in October, but the court was unable to contact the defendant remotely for technical reasons.

Topal F. is charged with 27 counts of failing to render assistance.

According to the prosecution office, Viking Idun (135 meters long and almost 12 meters wide) was traveling behind its sister ship, Viking Sigyn, when both vessels approached Margaret Bridge. According to his testimony, the accused noticed that Viking Sigyn was slowing down considerably, and after consulting with the other captain, began to overtake it. As large vessels cannot fit under all bridges, the steering position on the top of the deck can be retracted, which significantly reduces the helmsman’s field of vision.

The wreck of Hableány, lifted from the river bed, hangs on the straps of the floating crane in 2019. Photo: wikimedia.org

As Topal F. said, on the night of the tragedy, the weather conditions were already poor due to heavy rainfall and strong winds, and the radar images were so blurred by the weather that it was impossible to get an accurate picture of the ships’ surroundings.

According to his testimony presented on Monday, the defendant did not realize that Viking Sigyn had collided with the much smaller Hableány under Margaret Bridge, crushing it underneath, and the small cruise ship carrying South Korean tourists sank within seconds. Topal F. claimed that the crew on his ship did not detect the sinking of the cruise ship or that people were in the water, nor that Viking Sigyn had launched lifeboats to rescue survivors. The latter was justified by the fact that it had already been covered while overtaking, so they could not see the other side of the sister ship.

Viking Sigyn. Photo: Wikipedia/Raimond Spekking

Topal F. noted that he had only learned of the tragedy when they later docked further south with Viking Idun. Prior to that, after their turn north of Margaret Bridge, they had passed Viking Sigyn again, but he said they had not seen any trouble.

The accused also stated that after the crews of several smaller ships in the vicinity had noticed the incident, they all started speaking simultaneously on the radio in Hungarian, creating chaos in the radio traffic. Meanwhile, he claimed that the so-called “mayday” signal, obliging all nearby vessels to render assistance, was not once heard in German, the official language of navigation on the Danube.

Memorial to the victims of the tragedy. Photo: Facebook/BRFK Budapesti Rendőr-főkapitányság

In another element of his defense, the accused also argued that as captain, he was primarily responsible for his own ship, his subordinates, and his passengers, and that, therefore, under the rules, he could only participate in a rescue operation in which none of them was put in danger.

The captain of Viking Sigyn, Yuriy C., who caused the Hableány disaster, was sentenced in September to five and a half years in prison for reckless endangerment causing death by waterborne casualty, but the court found him not guilty of the other 35 counts of failing to render assistance.

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Via MTI, Featured image: Facebook/BRFK Budapesti Rendőr-főkapitányság

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