The car, driven by Vecdet Eriş, plunged into the water shortly after it drove off the ferry on May 28 at 4 a.m. Eriş and his wife, Aysel Eriş, who was in the car with him, died at the scene, while the other passengers, Ahmet Gülhan and his wife, Zeynep Gülhan, died at Tekirdağ State Hospital, where they were taken after the accident.
“There are no precautions here [at the Port of Tekirdağ] to prevent possible accidents. There is no lighting, no attendants or signs to ensure safe disembarking,” a witness of the accident told media that same day.
Officials from Ministry of Transportation, Maritime Affairs and Communication launched an immediate investigation into the incident. Additionally, Tekirdağ Public Prosecutor Muammer Özcan also launched a probe and examined the scene on May 29 to see whether there was any negligence on the part of the officials.
As a result, four officials were arrested on June 1 on charges of negligence in the accident. Ali Markal, the Tekirdağ harbormaster, Rahman Çoban, the deputy harbormaster, Ertuğrul Çakır, the second captain of the ferry, and third captain Rafet Pala, were arrested by court decision on charges on of “not taking necessary safety measures” in the port, citing insufficient lighting and traffic signage.
Discussions were slated to continue as a deputy from the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) in a press conference in Parliament defined the accident as murder that resulted from man-made mistakes and a lack of essential safety measures.
Port safety in spotlight
Passenger and ship safety using İstanbul ports have come into the media spotlight after the accident in Tekirdağ sparked public outrage and raised questions over port regulations and safety.
Several İstanbul ports are critical for public transportation as tens of thousands of people choose sea transportation daily to get to work and back home as they see it as safer in comparison to other methods. The ports of Kadıköy, Üsküdar, Harem, Beşiktaş, Bakırköy, Yenikapı and Sirkeci (Sarayburnu) are among those offering public transportation services as people prefer the reasonably priced ships and ferries to escape traffic and to get to their destination faster. Sirkeci, Yenikapı and Harem also serve car ferries.
Tolga Uyar, an İstanbul Ferry Lines (İDO) communications officer, told Today's Zaman last week that Turkey is part of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), which is one of the most important international treaties regarding ship and port facility safety.
In addition to this, Uyar said İDO is legally bound by passenger ship safety recommendations by the International Maritime Organization's (IMO) Maritime Safety to provide better and safer public service in sea transportation. The Port of Yenikapı, which is home to the İDO headquarters, was designed to ensure the safe docking of ships, loading, unloading and transportation of cars by ferries, he said.
When contacted by Today's Zaman last week, H. Gani Aygün, who has headed the İstanbul Harbormaster's Office since the beginning of May, declined to comment on the incident that took place in Tekirdağ as an investigation is under way.
He said all İstanbul ports are regulated by his office and meet the requirements of the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) code, which is an amendment to SOLAS.
According to Uyar, the accident in Tekirdağ took place as a result of the design of the port facility, which has two points at which ships can dock. The port resembles an "I" that extends into the water, so a car that exits the ferry must immediately turn right or left, depending on where the ferry docks, in order to not drive off the other end and end up in the water.
Uyar pointed out that measures need to be taken in order to prevent an accident similar to the one in Tekirdağ from taking place. He argued that the experience of personnel working at the ports and the design of the port facility are critical for the safe docking of ships. He further asserted that proper lighting and a docking system which allows for the safe boarding of ships and ships leaving the port are critical.
Unlike the Port of Tekirdağ, the ports of İstanbul are not configured for vehicles to disembark from car ferries with the possibility of driving off the other end.
Passengers uneasy about boarding safety
When contacted by Today's Zaman, several passengers expressed their unease with passenger boarding bridges, which are sometimes lower than the deck of the ship and may lead to accidents.
Leslie, who declined to give her full name and who has lived in İstanbul for almost half a year, shared her experience at the Port of Kadıköy and said the boarding bridges are not safe enough for the departure of passengers.
“It was really dangerous and I was stunned by the fact that it is treated here as a normal thing,” she said. Mehtap, another passenger, who only gave her first name, said she is anxious sometimes when she departs from the ship. She complains about boarding bridges.
Aygün, on the other hand, notes that passengers generally defy rules critical for their safety and adds that many accidents take place as a result.
One of the scenes this Today's Zaman correspondent witnessed in İstanbul's Eminönü and Sirkeci ports was that some passengers jump from the ship and onto the dock before the ship is even finished docking. This picture replays itself in almost every docking.
Marilyn, who requested not to give her second name and who came from the UK and works in İstanbul, said when she went to Yalova, a city near İstanbul, with her friend's car in a ferry, she was surprised that passengers were jumping in front of cars and used the road belonging to cars after the ship docked.
An official who oversees the docking of passenger ships and the departure of people from ships in Üsküdar gave an interesting answer when asked by Today's Zaman why the officials use a bridge that is lower than the deck of the ship. In response, he said they use two bridges for disembarking passengers. He said the lower one is for those who need to hurry. One allows for the safe disembarkment of the people while the other one poses risks.
While passenger safety codes are very clear on the issue and Turkey is party to international treaties, there is still a long way to go in terms of passenger ship safety and the safety of port facilities.
Additionally, passengers should respect all sea transportation rules for their own safety.