HIGH SEAS: Little Titanic

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Once again, 46 years after the Titanic, a ship was launched with the prideful label of "the safest afloat." Once again, she set off proudly on her maiden voyage manned by an expert crew and crowded with happy passengers. Once again, the cruel sea did its deadly work and made a mockery of the vanity of man.

Arctic Revolution. The Hans Hedtoft, a diesel-powered motorship, went down the ways of Denmark's Frederikshavn shipyard last August, small but sturdy and trim. The 2,857-ton freighter had been specially designed for the Danish government to withstand the pounding seas and polar ice of the wildest stretch of the North Atlantic Ocean, off the barren shores of Greenland. She had a double steel bottom, an armored bow and stern, and was divided into seven watertight compartments; she carried the most modern instrumentation, from radar to gyro, from Decca Navigator to radio-equipped life rafts. Her veteran captain, P. L. Rasmussen, 58, declared: "This ship means a revolution in Arctic navigation." Boasted a government official: "Now we can sail to Greenland all year round."

In the public acclaim, most Danes ignored the words of Knud Lauritzen, a private shipowner, who declared that the steel plates on the Hans Hedtoft should have been welded, not riveted, because the riveting of plates on a rigid frame does not afford enough resistance to ice pressure. The criticism was passed off as the embittered words of a private operator who would rather the government chartered his ships than build its own.

On Jan. 7 the Hans Hedtoft left Copenhagen on her maiden voyage to the Greenland ports. She arrived uneventfully at Godthaab, capital of Greenland, and one day last week put to sea again bound for Copenhagen on the homeward leg of her maiden run. On board were 40 crewmen, a cargo of frozen fish, and 55 passengers, including one of Greenland's two Representatives in the Danish Parliament, and six children. Rounding Cape Farewell, the southernmost tip of the island, known as the "worst in the north" for storms, the Hans Hedtoft struggled against the Arctic currents, icy polar winds and mountainous, 20-ft. seas. Next morning at 11:54 the Hans Hedtoft's radio crackled an S O S: "Collision with iceberg." Less than an hour later came word that the engine room was filling fast from a gash in the riveted steel hull.

Growlers & Brash. A small West German ocean-going trawler, the Johannes Krüss, and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Campbell turned toward the stricken ship. Another German fishing trawler radioed that she was on the way. At 3:36 came the final message from the Hedtoft: "Slowly sinking and need immediate assistance." In Newfoundland, where U.S. and Canadian aircraft were grounded or turned back by the foul weather, search-and-rescue officers estimated that anyone forced into the freezing ocean would "last just over 60 seconds."

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