M/S Estonia

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The M/S Estonia was a RORO car and passenger ferry built in 1979 in Germany. The ship operated as Viking Sally 19801990 between Turku and Stockholm, as Silja Star 1991 and as Wasa King 19911993 between Vaasa and Umeå.

The ship was bought by the Swedish-Estonian shipping company EstLine Marine Company in January 1993. Half of the company was owned by newly-independent Estonian government and other half by Swedish company Nordström & Thulin. After the Soviet Union, the Iron Curtain between Nordic and Baltic countries vanished, and the first voyage between Tallinn and Stockholm took place February 1, 1993. Traffic continued with departures every other day from Tallinn and Stockholm respectively.

On September 28, 1994 the ship sank in the Baltic Sea, claiming 852 lives.

M/S Estonia

The disaster

The Estonia disaster occurred on September 28, 1994 at about 00:55 to 01:50 (UTC+2) enroute from Tallinn, Estonia to Stockholm, Sweden carrying 989 people, passengers and crew.

M/S Estonia was expected to arrive in Stockholm at about 09:30. The weather was rough, with a wind of 20–25 m/s (45–55 mph) and waves of 6–10 meters (20–30 feet). Some report waves over 15 meters (50 feet) and wind over 30 m/s (65 mph). Unlike the other ferries on the route she ran, at full speed, into the waves.

The direct cause of the accident was the underdimensioned locks on the bow visor that broke under the strain of the waves. When the visor broke off the ship, it brought the ramp, which covered the opening to the car deck behind the visor, down with it. This allowed water in on the car deck which destabilized the ship and started a catastrophic chain of events that brought the ship down. (Similar problems also sank the Herald of Free Enterprise in 1987 and the Princess Victoria in 1953).

The first signs of danger was a strange sound of metal against metal around 01:00, when the ship was in the outskirts of Turku archipelago. Investigation of the bow visor showed no signs of danger at that time. At about 01:20 a weak female voice called "Häire, häire, laeval on häire" the Estonian words for "Alarm, alarm, there is alarm on the ship", over the public address system. Just a moment later an internal alarm for the crew was transmitted over the public address system. Soon after this the general lifeboat alarm was given. Soon the vessel lurched some 30–40 degrees to starboard (right hand side), which made it more or less impossible to move about inside the ship. Those who were going to survive were already on the deck by then. Mayday was communicated by the ship crew at 01:22, but did not follow international formats and was said in Finnish, which delayed the rescue operation somewhat, as she could not give her position. The Viking Line passenger ferry M/S Mariella arrived on the scene of the accident at 02:12. First rescue helicopter arrived at 03:05.

Out of the total 989 people on the ship only 137 were saved. The accident claimed 852 lives, by drowning and freezing to death in the cold water. Only 95 bodies of the total number of casualties were recovered.

The location of the hull is at Template:Coor dm, about 22 nautical miles (41 km) on bearing 157° from Utö island, Finland.

Flaws in emergency response

The accident uncovered a huge number of flaws in the systems for rescuing people during and after the sinking of a large passenger ferry. Some of the more important conclusions were:

  • A clear message to the passengers may have saved many lives. Most of those that were killed never managed to get out of the ship. When the ship had a list of 30 degrees or more, moving about inside it was almost impossible and very dangerous due to the risk of falling or getting crushed under falling equipment.
  • The lifeboats could not be released due to the listing (sideways tilt) of the ship.
  • Most passengers did not understand how to inflate the liferafts or use the lifevests provided.
  • The liferafts were hard to board, were easily overturned and very hard to assemble by the people that got aboard. An overturned liferaft provided almost no protection from the weather.
  • Searched liferafts had to be marked so time wasn't wasted by searching the same raft multiple times. In later phases of the rescue operation, this was done by cutting the roofs of the rafts.
  • Several of the rescue helicopters had their winches burn up or the wires frayed. They had not been built for the load.
  • One rescue man per helicopter was not enough. At least two should be brought along as the rescue work was exhausting. Several of the rescue men were wounded.

While some of these flaws have been corrected, an accident of the same magnitude today would probably result in an even larger amount of casualties. There are simply not as many rescue helicopters available today, after several years of downsizing.

Estonia Agreement 1995

In the aftermath of the disaster, many relatives of the deceased demanded that their loved ones should be raised and given a land burial. Demands were also made that the entire ship should be raised so that the cause of the disaster could be discovered by detailed inspection.

Citing the practical difficulties and the moral implications of raising decaying bodies from the ocean floor (the majority of the bodies were never recovered), but also fearing the financial burden for the costs of lifting the entire hull to the surface and the salvage operation the Swedish government overhastily suggested burying the whole ship in situ with a shell of concrete.

In the end, a treaty (Estonia Agreement 1995) between Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Denmark, Russia and, strangely (as it is not a Baltic state), Britain, declared sanctity over the site, prohibiting its citizens from even approaching the wreck. The treaty however is only binding for citizens of the countries that are signatories to the treaty. The Finnish Navy has, at least twice, disturbed diving operations at the wreck. The wreck is being monitored by radar from Finland [1] (http://www.estoniasamlingen.se/content.aspx?idx=3&sub=5&ex=n).

Causes of the disaster

Official investigation and report

Remote videotapes of the wreck showed that the locks on the bow door had failed and that the door had separated from the rest of the vessel. The official report indicated that the bow visor and ramp had been torn off at points that would not cause an "open" or "unlatched" indication on the bridge, as is the case in normal operation or failure of the latches. There was no video monitoring of this portion of the vehicle bay either. However, a video camera monitoring the inner ramp showed the water as it flooded the car deck. If the crew had known the condition it is likely that they would have slowed or even operated the ship in reverse, which may have avoided the swamping and sinking. Recommendations of modifications to be applied to similar ships included separation of the condition sensors from the latch and hinge mechanisms and the addition of video monitoring.

Independent investigations

A minor industry of conspiracy theory interpretations of the events arose after the disaster, elements of which have been subsequently vindicated by new evidence gained from independent investigations, as well as testimony from witnesses. An American adventurer, Gregg Bemis, and his crew diving to the wreck and filming its hull retrieved pieces of metal from the ship which in laboratory tests showed evidence of an explosion.[2] (http://www.newstatesman.com/200505230019)

The German journalist Jutta Rabe also carried out her own investigations, which resulted in a book, which was turned into the motion picture Baltic Storm, which portrays the Russian secret service as being responsible for the sinking. The plot portrays the Swedish government as being responsible for using the ship to covertly transport Russian high-tech components to the United States. The story is unveiled by a young female journalist, not unlike Ms. Rabe herself. According to Rabe, divers hired by the Swedish government (signing contracts swearing lifetime secrecy) spent hours breaking into cabins frantically searching for a black attaché case carried by a Russian space technology dealer, Aleksandr Voronin. She highlighted US interest in various Soviet technology, including nuclear-powered satellites. It has been suggested that panic about the stability of some form of nuclear device is the most likely reason behind the initial Swedish government suggestion of burying the wreck in concrete, a highly unusual proposal for a wreck, reminiscent of Chernobyl's sarcophagus.

In Autumn 2004 a scandal erupted in Swedish media after a revelation made by a retired customs officer that shortly before the accident in 1994, M/S Estonia had been used by Swedish military intelligence to bring in electronic equipment illegally acquired in Estonia from the Russian Army (former units of USSR Baltic Military District). Swedish court investigator Johan Hirschfeldt later confirmed that the military intelligence indeed used M/S Estonia in September 1994 for bringing in secret military equipment, but the content of the shipment will remain classified for 70 years.

In early 2005, Jutta Rabe reported that a helicopter log book had been found showing that some of the crew of the Estonia, including one of the captains, Avo Piht, had been flown to hospital after the disaster. These nine people, who would be strong eyewitnesses about the condition of and events on the ship, have since disappeared without trace.

According to Stephen Davis, writing in the New Statesman in May 2005 [3] (http://www.newstatesman.com/200505230019), the ship was carrying a secret cargo of military equipment smuggled from the Russians by the British MI6, as part of ongoing efforts to monitor the development of Russia's weapons. This explains Britain's signing of the Estonia Agreement.

See also


  • Jutta Rabe (2002), "Die Estonia. Tragödie eines Schiffsuntergangs", Delius Klasing Verlag GmbH
  • Jutta Rabe, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 12 February 2005, "Estonia": Der Richter muss schweigen

External links

de:Estonia da:Estonia no:MF Estonia fi:Estonian onnettomuus sv:Estoniakatastrofen


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