A seven-year-old Polish boy – who died alongside his mother after they plunged from a passenger ferry into the Baltic sea – may have been disabled and in a wheelchair, horrified witnesses have said.
It comes as Polish authorities announced they are investigating the tragedy as the ‘murder of a child and the suicide of the mother’, amid claims that the ship’s railings were too high to allow an accidental fall.
Initial reports suggested the boy had fallen and his mother had jumped in to rescue him, but CCTV footage is said to not match this version of events and a murder probe has also been launched by Swedish prosecutors, with no suspect identified.
Passengers on the Stena Spirit ferry, which was carrying 310 people from Sweden to Poland on Thursday, watched on in horror as rescue teams scoured the ocean for an hour to find the boy and his mother.
The mother, who has been named as Paulina, is said to have come from Grudziadz, a town south of Gdansk, and was a single parent to her son Lech, according to Polish newspaper Fakt.
Passengers on the Stena Spirit ferry watched as rescue teams scoured the ocean for an hour to find the boy and his mother on Thursday
The Swedish ferry, Stena Spirit, had 310 passengers onboard and was midway through its journey to Gdynia in Poland from Karlskrona in Sweden when the tragedy occurred, officials have said
The pair were found in the freezing waters, winched up by helicopter and rushed to hospital, where they both died.
Now an expert has told Polish media that the high railings on the ferry meant the boy’s fall of around 65ft ‘couldn’t have been an accidental’.
Agnieszka Zembrzycka, a Stena Line spokesperson, told Polish media on Friday that the CCTV footage from the ship did not match this version of events.
‘The barriers are at the height of my chest, and I am 180 cm tall, so it could not have been an accidental fall,’ Polish rescue expert Michal Mieczkowski said.
‘Either the child was climbing and the jolting or rocking of the ship caused him to lose his balance, or is this a suicide attempt?’
The ferry, which is owned by the Stena Line, was on its way from Gdynia in Poland to Karlskrona in Sweden on Thursday when the tragedy occurred.
An extensive search and rescue operation was launched involving ships and helicopters from Sweden and NATO units in the area also came to their assistance
The mother was found in the freezing water 59 minutes after the alarm was sounded and her son seven minutes later, according to a Stena Line official, before they were winched by helicopter and rushed to Karlskrona Hospital.
According to initial media reports, the little boy had fallen into the sea and his mother had jumped in after him.
Polish media quoted eyewitnesses from the ferry as saying the child was ‘disabled in some way’ and used a buggy or wheelchair.
Video from before the incident which has been reviewed by local media suggests the mother and her son had been hugging before the incident occurred.
A witness also claimed online that the 36-year-old mother had ‘looked tired and depressed’ when they saw her.
Meanwhile, over the weekend, a Polish diving group who were sailing in the area claimed to have recovered a Stena Spirit lifebuoy from the sea.
There has been no confirmation whether this was linked to the rescue effort.
Swedish prosecutors said on Friday that they had initiated a preliminary investigation where the criminal charge is murder, while adding that no suspect had been identified.
‘The investigation aims to try to clarify what happened,’ prosecutor Stina Brindmark said.
The prosecutor did not want to answer whether the investigation concerns the mother, whose death was confirmed on Friday.
Over the weekend, a Polish diving group who were sailing in the area claimed to have recovered a Stena Spirit lifebuoy from the sea
Police spokesman Mariusz Ciarka confirmed on Friday: ‘Unfortunately, in the morning we received information from the Swedish side that we have to pass on this terrible news to the family, because both the boy and the woman are dead.’
The Swedish ferry was midway through its journey to Gdynia in Poland from Karlskrona in Sweden when the tragedy occurred, officials said.
The ferry’s rescue boat, a helicopter belonging to the Swedish Maritime Administration, German helicopters and an American aircraft from a nearby NATO exercise all took part in the rescue effort, local media has reported.
The exact circumstances surrounding the horrifying incident remain unknown.
‘There were passengers who alerted the crew that two people were missing. Then possessions were found without the people. Then the crew was alerted and surveillance images were checked’, Stefan Elfström, head of information at Stena Line, told local media.
The Swedish ferry, Stena Spirit, was in the Baltic midway through its journey to Gdynia in Poland from Karlskrona in Sweden (file image shows the ferry)
According to initial media reports, a little boy had fallen into the sea and a woman had jumped in after him.
However, Agnieszka Zembrzycka, a Stena Line spokesperson, told Polish media on Friday that the CCTV footage from the ship did not match this version of events.
She declined to provide further details pending the outcome of the inquiry into what took place.
‘At the moment we have no information whether this was due to a malfunction of the ferry,’ Stena Line spokesperson Agnieszka Zembrzycka told TVN 24.
‘We are cooperating with the police and other authorities that are appointed to explain the causes and circumstances of this event.’
Swedish police issued an appeal to Polish passengers via Poland’s state-run news agency PAP asking for information that could explain how the accident occurred.
Swedish Maritime Administration spokesperson Jonas Franzen told reporters that the child fell from a height of about 20 meters (65 feet).
‘First we received a report that one person had fallen overboard, then it turned out to be two,’ said Lars Blom, chief of rescue operations at the Swedish Maritime Administration rescue centre.
Swedish Maritime Administration spokesperson Jonas Franzen told reporters that the child fell from a height of about 20 meters (65 feet). (File image shows Stena Spirit)
Sebastian Kluska, a Polish Maritime Search and Rescue Service director, said the ferry left Gdynia on Thursday at 9am and headed towards Karlskrona in southern Sweden.
At approximately 4.20pm information came through about two people who fell from the ferry and emergency services rushed to the scene.
The accident occurred in the Swedish area of responsibility of the SAR service, but his Polish team was called in to help, he said.
About five minutes after the broadcast of the message, which was also sent out by Polish Rescue Radio, the Swedish administration and the Swedish Rescue Coordination Center asked for help, he told Fakt.pl.
It was the rescue boat crew who found the Polish woman and her son in the water, he added, claiming they were then handed over to rescue helicopters.