The Sinking of the MS Estonia – 28th September 1994

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Estonia in Viking Line Livery By Mark Markefelt (1918–2009)
Maritime Museum [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The History of the MS Estonia

On Wednesday 28th September 1994 at 01:50 (UTC +2) the MS Estonia sank in the Baltic Sea during a storm, on a routine crossing from the port of Tallinn in Estonia to Stockholm in Sweden. On board the ship were 803 passengers and 186 crew. 852 people lost their lives in the icy waters of the Baltic and it was the worst peacetime maritime disaster in European waters.

The Estonia was cruise ferry constructed in 1979/80 at the German shipyard Meyer Werft in Papenburg. The ship had previously been named Viking Sally (1980–1990), Silja Star (1990–1991), and Wasa King (1991–1993). Originally the ship was conceived as a sister ship to Diana II, built in 1979 by the same shipyard for Rederi AB Slite, the third partner in Viking Line. When Sally took over the construction contract, the ship was lengthened from the original length of approximately 137 metres (449 ft) to approximately 155 metres (509 ft) and the superstructure of the ship was largely redesigned. Meyer Werft had constructed a large number of ships for various Viking Line partner companies during the 1970s. The construction of the ship’s bow consisted of an upwards-opening visor and a car ramp that was placed inside the visor when it was closed. An identical bow construction had also been used in Diana II.

Type: Ro Ro Passenger Cruise
Tonnage:  15,598 GT
3,006 DWT

Length:  155.43 m (509 ft 11 in) (as built)
157.02 m (515.16 ft) (1984 onwards)
Beam: 24.21 m (79 ft 5 in)
Draught: 5.60 m (18 ft 4 in)
Decks: 9
Ice class: 1A
Installed power:  4 × MAN 8L40/45
17,625 kW (23,636 hp) (combined)
Speed: 21.1 knots (39.1 km/h; 24.3 mph)
Capacity:  2,000 passengers
1,190 passenger berths
460 cars

The Viking Sally was delivered to Rederi Ab Sally a Finnish company and sailed the route between Turku, Mariehamn and Stockholm. She was the largest ship on that route and suffered a number of mishaps, including running aground in the Aland Archipelago in the summer of 1982. The ship also had propeller problems and in 1985 her stern was redesigned and rebuilt with a “duck tail.” The Rederi Ab Sally Line was suffering from financial difficulties and in 1987 she was purchased by Effoa and Johnson Line. She was subsequently chartered to Rederi AB Slite to continue on her current traffic for the next three years.

In January 1993, at the same time when EffJohn decided to merge Wasa Line’s operations into Silja Line, Wasa King was sold to Nordström & Thulin for use on EstLine’s Tallinn–Stockholm traffic under the name Estonia. The actual ownership of the ship was rather complex, in order for Nordstöm & Thulin to get a loan to buy the ship. Although Nordström & Thulin were the company who bought the ship, her registered owners were Estline Marine Co Ltd, Nicosia, Cyprus, who chartered the ship to E.Liini A/S, Tallinn, Estonia (daughter company of Nordström & Thulin and ESCO) who in turn chartered the ship to EstLine Ab. As a result, the ship was actually registered in both Cyprus and Estonia. As the largest Estonian-owned ship of the time, the Estonia symbolized the independence that Estonia regained after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Final Voyage of the Estonia

The Estonia’s final departure from Tallinn was at 18:30 on 27th September and she was expected to dock in Stockholm at around 09:30 the following morning. Most of the passengers were Swedish with some Estonians and a scattering of other nationalities; most of the crew were Estonians. On departure the ship was fully loaded and was listing slightly to starboard due to poor cargo distribution.

The weather was rough with a wind of 15 to 20 metres per second (29 to 39 kn; 34 to 45 mph), force 7–8 on the Beaufort scale and a significant wave height of 4 to 6 metres (13 to 20 ft) compared with the highest measured significant wave height in the Baltic Sea of 7.7 metres (25.3 ft). Esa Mäkelä, the captain of Silja Europa who was appointed on-scene commander for the subsequent rescue effort, described the weather as “normally bad”, or like a typical autumn storm in the Baltic Sea. All scheduled passenger ferries were at sea. The official report says that while the exact speed at the time of the accident is not known, Estonia had very regular voyage times, averaging 16 to 17 knots (30 to 31 km/h; 18 to 20 mph). The chief mate of the Viking Line cruise ferry Mariella tracked Estonia’s speed by radar at approximately 14.2 knots (26.3 km/h; 16.3 mph) before the first signs of distress, while the Silja Europa’s officers estimated her speed at 14 to 15 knots (26 to 28 km/h; 16 to 17 mph) at midnight.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
Final route of the Estonia – PowerPoint slide Blown Periphery

At around 01:00 on 28th September a metallic bang was heard from the front of the ship, caused by a heavy wave hitting the bow doors. The only inspection the crew carried out was to review the indicator lights for the ramp and visor from the bridge, which showed no problems. The extreme bow of the ship and the vehicle deck visor could not be viewed from the bridge. The passengers and other crew reported hearing similar noises over the next ten minutes. At 01:15 the visor on the ship’s bow doors opened and water began to flood into the vehicle deck. The ship immediately listed heavily to starboard at around 15 degrees which had increased to 60 degrees by 01:30. By 01:50 the ship was on its side at 90 degrees and the vehicle deck was completely flooded. The Estonia had been turned to port and slowed before her four engines cut out.

At 01:20 a quiet, ineffectual female voice called “Häire, häire, laeval on häire”, Estonian for “Alarm, alarm, there is alarm on the ship”, over the public address system, which was followed immediately by an internal alarm for the crew, then one minute later by the general lifeboat alarm. Passengers were trapped in the lower decks, unable to ascend to the boat deck because as well as the water coming in from the car deck, the ships large, panoramic windows gave way, flooding the cabin decks. These factors were almost certainly the cause of the rapid sinking of the ship.

A Mayday was sent at 01:20 but did not follow recognised international formats. The ship disappeared from the radar screens of other ships at around 01:50 and sank at 59°23′N 21°42′E in international waters, about 22 nautical miles (41 km; 25 mi) on bearing 157° from Utö island, Finland, to the depth of 74 to 85 metres (243 to 279 ft) of water. According to survivor accounts, the ship sank stern first after taking a list of 90 degrees. From the first bang from the bow visor the ship sank in fifty minutes, although it was probably less than thirty-five minutes once the water began to enter the vehicle deck and thirty minutes once the alarm had been raised. A simple Mk 1 eyeball test of the bow doors earlier could have saved many more lives.

A recording of the garbled and confusing Mayday communications:

Survivors’ Testimonies

Blown Periphery, Going Postal
One of the Estonia’s swamped life rafts
Accident Investigation Board Finland. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
There were 137 survivors who endured the ship’s sinking and the freezing waters of the Baltic Sea and their accounts of the disaster are harrowing. The motion of the ship was uncomfortable for many of the passengers, because the waves were bow on and the Estonia heaved upwards and vibrated in the heavy seas, before slamming down into the troughs, many were seasick and retired to their cabins, which were located on deck one at the forward end of the ship. The interior hallways of the accommodation sections were windowless, fluorescent-lit passageways, smelling of aluminium and plastic, and barely wide enough for two people to pass. They ran fore and aft, and had branches from side to side. With their twenty-four-hour lighting and long rows of anonymous, closely spaced cabin doors, they gave those parts of the ship an institutional allure not much different from that of modern prison galleries. Moreover, the cabins themselves were smaller than cells, and many soon turned into traps and then coffins for their passengers.

At 11:00 the restaurants closed and some of the passengers went to the Baltic Bar to watch the nightclub show and listen to the band. A Swedish passenger, Pierre Thiger was slowly drinking an Irish coffee, watching the show and recounts that he had never sailed in such sea conditions on this regular crossing. The weather worsened in the Mid-Baltic and the ship began to roll more heavily. The waiters were having trouble moving between the tables and a large speaker on wheels began to move back and forth on the stage. One of the dancing girls fell of the stage into the band and the show was called off at 00:30.

Thiger and an acquaintance he had met in the Baltic Bar decided to go down one deck to a bar called the Pub Admiral. It was a long, narrow room aft of amidships on the starboard side of the Estonia. There was around fifty people inside, who were loud and drunk and it was a karaoke event. Because the music was so loud, Thiger and his acquaintance moved forward for a better view, perching on two stools near the stage. At about 01:00 the entertainer announced: “We have such an amusing time tonight, so I think I should extend the time a little.”

Around that time Thiger recalls hearing a heavy, metallic-sounding blow that reverberated heavily through the ship’s structure. At first he though it had been caused by a particularly heavy wave and wondered if a lorry had overturned on the vehicle deck. However, the mood in the Pub Admiral remained resolutely festive. Somebody joked: “Ha, now we have sailed against an iceberg!” About thirty seconds later there was another loud impact and Thiger had the impression the ship was swerving to port, into the seas. He thought this was to turn directly into the waves so the crew could lash down the vehicles below. The ship started to shake in a wallowing motion, rolled from port to starboard, and then rolled steeply to starboard and never recovered. Glasses crashed off a shelf and a speaker rolled across the floor and collided with a railing.

The singing stopped and Thiger said to his acquaintance: “Now there is something completely wrong. Now let’s get out of here.” The two men jumped up and they had taken a few steps towards the exit when ship heeled over to about 30 degrees. There was panic in the pub and a female bartender was hammered to the deck under a deluge of bottles and glasses. Refrigerators swept across the room with barstools and customers and many were injured and subsequently died. There was a huge tangle of fittings and people on the starboard side of the pub but Thiger and his companion kept their feet and headed through the mayhem to the exit.

Another Swedish survivor called Rolf Sörman would prove to have reserves of calm and a great presence of mind, was part of a human resources group, which was using the ferry’s aft conference room for a seminar. This was a common practice on Baltic ferries and much cheaper than expensive hotel facilities. When he had been younger Sörman had wanted to go to sea and had spent some weeks as an officer under training. He disapproved that the Estonian crew were ploughing at speed through the heavy seas, whereas Swedish ferries would have slowed for passenger comfort and to induce them to spend more in the bars and restaurants. He was of the opinion the Estonians still had the Soviet mentality of seafaring.

Many of his colleagues from the seminar had been sick and it was suggested they go on deck for fresh air. Four of his female colleagues were too nervous to go out on the promenade deck so they ended up in the Pub Admiral. The music was too loud to speak, so they retreated to a far corner away from the speakers, which was opposite an exit. Sörman recalls feeling metallic bangs reverberate through the decks but wasn’t unduly worried, until the ship heeled dramatically to starboard and the inside of the Pub Admiral became mayhem. Sörman and his group used the nearby exit as waves lapped against the glass windows, the solid green water lit by the interior lights. Using the rolls of the ship, they dashed through the open spaces, up a lateral corridor to the aft stairwell.

They didn’t panic and moved with purpose and a degree of single-mindedness, which are the keys to survival. Using the railings and brass banisters they hauled themselves rapidly up two levels, meeting few other passengers on the way. They heard the weak announcement in Estonian: “Häire! Häire! Laeval on häire!” At the top of the stairway, on Deck 7, they found that some of the crew had formed a human chain to help people up the sloping floor to the promenade doors. Then the ship heeled more steeply, however, and the crew disappeared onto the open deck outside. Sörman and his group made it to the doorway nonetheless, and by grasping the frame they pulled themselves through. They were among the first passengers to reach the promenade. After failing to open one of the life-vest boxes, they succeeded in opening another. Still functioning as a group at that time, they helped one another to find life vests with no missing straps, and to put the vests on.

Pierre Thiger and his acquaintance were slower to escape from the Pub Admiral, though not for want of trying. The brief opportunities provided by the rolling motion—the cyclical moderations of the starboard heel that Rolf Sörman had exploited—were spoiled for them by the distance to the exit and the presence of other passengers ahead who were either too shocked or too drunk to move quickly or get out of the way. Afterward the floor angles grew so steep that even crawling was ineffective and people formed human chains. Thiger and his acquaintance were able to reach the hallway outside. With the further use of human chains they struggled across the ship amid scenes of bedlam and fear, and they arrived at the aft stairway.

By then the stairway was crowded with fleeing passengers, many of whom were hanging on to the railings as if paralysed. Thiger and his acquaintance tore loose their hands and shouted in their ears to get them moving, and after an agonizingly slow climb they finally arrived on Deck 7, somehow negotiated the steepening floor, and moved through the double doors to temporary safety outside. They were among the last to make it there. Since the first catastrophic heel maybe eight minutes had gone by. The list had increased by now to 40 degrees. When it got to 45 degrees, two or three minutes later, escape from the ship became impossible

Survival that night was a brutal race and deadly simple. People who processed the danger quickly and moved fast and with purpose had a chance. Those who were too weak, drunk or were trapped far below decks in cabins didn’t. Those who hesitated were lost and the mere act of getting dressed doomed them, although once in the water, the cold was the enemy. However there were totally naked survivors who endured the harsh cold in swamped life rafts. Survival was a state of mind and the sea was in command.

The relative distance people had to travel seems to have made little difference. After the sinking divers saw clusters of bodies in the crew accommodation on Deck 7, which led directly out onto the boat and promenade deck. There were survivors from the forward part of Deck 1, which was below the vehicle deck and the waterline. Because of its proximity to the bow, many in the cabins were unable to sleep because of the rough ride and the metallic crashes from the bow gave them early warning that all was not well on the ship. A Swedish woman, age thirty, expressed concern to her companions, and climbed the stairs fully clothed to Deck 7, where she arrived quite calmly and took a seat at least fifteen minutes in advance of the panicked rush.

Others on Deck 1 who were less alert to the danger were nonetheless well primed, and those who ultimately survived moved into action immediately when the ship heeled over with a screech and a howl and an impact so violent that people were thrown out of bed, or against the walls. Up and down the hallways doors popped open and people emerged. As the leaders fled, they saw water in various forms: running in rivulets on the floor, or rushing as a river, or spurting from fittings on a wall, or cascading down from overhead. Their escape routes led by six short stairways to a common passageway inside the car deck’s centre casing, from which separate stairways then led upward, primarily to the Estonia’s large entrance foyer, which spanned the ship at the base of its main staircase, on Deck 4. The centre casing was still mostly dry, but floodwaters sprayed at the fleeing passengers through gaps around the car-deck access doors.

A brutal selection was at play, by which those who had succeeded in reaching the promenade tended by definition to be precisely the sort of people who could best handle the threat that awaited them there. They were fast and strong, and capable of quick calculation. Though their actions once outside were largely self-centred, with personal survival predominating over other concerns, many of the escapees proved able to work together to achieve that end—preparing and deploying the heavy life rafts, for instance, or attempting to free the lifeboats, however impossible that turned out to be. There was criminality, too Some of the first people to follow Rolf Sörman and his three female companions outside onto the nearly empty promenade were brazen thieves—a band of young Estonian men who took advantage of the confusion to tear a gold chain off Sörman’s neck and to strip cash and jewellery from the women. With startling speed they robbed others on the deck and then disappeared inside, apparently to work through the crowds that were just beginning to surge up the staircases. They were confident, as criminals tend to be, and they must not even have considered that the ship might then trap them, though it is thought that it did. One certainly hopes so. Sörman was with a female companion, Yvonne Bernevall, having become separated from the others.

As the ship continued to capsize and flood, its movement softened, with the unfortunate effect that the waves reached higher against the decks, plucking off victims in small groups or one by one. When the auxiliary engines failed and the lights flickered off, a new round of screaming erupted, but it quieted when the emergency generator kicked in. Increasing numbers of people arrived on Deck 8 (actually now climbing down to it), because the formerly upward V formed by the promenade had rotated so far to starboard that the alternative escape route, across its rails and onto the ship’s port side, had risen beyond their reach.

The heel grew to 110 degrees, and later to 120 degrees and more. Some of the escapees had managed to drag life rafts with them, but they were having the standard problems of getting them launched—troubles that were compounded by fights that broke out, and by the desperation that drove people to pile into rafts that were still too high on the hull. Those people were difficult to dislodge, though some fell out when the rafts eventually tumbled or slid into the water. Many of the canopies did not erect. Many of the rafts flipped upside down. After ten people threw themselves onto an inverted raft near the aft end of the hull, and others attacked en masse, trying to get on as well, the entire assembly went sliding uncontrollably into the sea, upside down, with people clustered in the middle and hanging on to the outside. This was a poor way to survive the Baltic in a storm on a September night.

Thiger remained composed. Since he had left the Pub Admiral around ten minutes had passed. He had lost track of the acquaintance with whom he had spent the evening and then escaped, and in a strange way he was in his element now, a man who knew ships, acting logically and alone, with nothing to do but survive. The Estonia was inverting, so he left the railing and began to walk toward the keel across the superstructure’s outsides. The ship no longer rocked much in the waves. Surf crashed over its stern, to his left. The steel underfoot was wet. He was careful not to fall through the windows into the darkened quarters below. Around a hundred people made the trip across the outsides. By the time Thiger got to the lower hull, most of them had already arrived.

Empty life vests and rafts both whole and ruined littered the water. People were scattered up and down the overturning hull—walking, crawling, lying down—and though some seemed to cluster, each of them in effect was alone. A couple were separated when the husband jumped into the water and beckoned to his wife, and out of terror she refused to go. As one by one they were picked off by the waves, Pierre Thiger got the impression that the ocean was reaching up to fetch them and drag them down. His own turn was coming soon. The ship had rolled to 135 degrees, halfway from prone to fully inverted, and the waves were surging all around. The water was so close that when a lifeboat that had broken loose smashed against the hull, Thiger was showered by pieces of shattered fibreglass.

Survival in the water was a desperate affair and the cries diminished as the sea and the cold picked off the survivors. Many could not get in the life rafts and some of those who were in were washed out again. Twenty-two life rafts were occupied but they were not the protective cocoons one might imagine but flimsy assemblies of inflated tubes, half collapsed, that were flipped repeatedly by the breaking waves, flushed with frigid water, and often indistinguishable from the pandemonium of the sea.

Rolf Sörman never found even such shelter in a raft. When he took Yvonne Bernevall’s hand and dropped with her from Deck 8 into the sea, he knew the temperature of the water was lethal. He gave himself a few minutes at the most before he would succumb to the cold. But he was so keyed up that the water felt neutral when he plunged in. In Baltic terms that means it felt warm. When he hit the water, he kept holding Bernevall’s hand. They went deep, and Sörman cleared his ears twice before the life vests prevailed over the momentum of their fall, and they started floating upward. Near the top Sörman was hit in the head by the foot of a frantic swimmer, and he yanked his hand from Bernevall’s grasp in order to protect himself. For some seconds after he surfaced he thought she might have drowned, but then she appeared nearby. He swam over to her, and they clung together for a moment to keep from being driven apart by the force of the waves. They spoke. They had a sense of being tugged at from below, as if they were in the clutches of a vertical drift caused by the hull’s sinking. Staying close together, they swam away for about twenty-five yards, against the oncoming seas, until the sensation diminished. Again they held each other and spoke. It was essential that they find something to float on.

Their position upwind from the Estonia gave them no chance of reaching the life rafts, which could not be secured or delayed on the storm-side of the ship. Their situation was not entirely hopeless, however, because the Estonia itself was drifting eastward, slowing as it sank, but continuing to litter the waves in its trail with waterlogged, wind-resistant debris. Sörman and Bernevall struggled through the flotsam, hoping to discover an object large enough to serve them as a raft. But Sörman and Bernevall found nothing of use, and instead came suddenly upon a scene of the dead and dying—a cluster of corpses lying face down in the waves, and among them several people still alive but thrashing violently during the final throes of drowning. In their haste to avoid entanglement Sörman and Bernevall split apart—he striking to the left, she to the right. Minutes later, when they tried to join up again, they could not. Sörman saw Bernevall floating high on top of a wave when he was at its bottom. He swam for her, but when he saw her next she had drifted farther away. After that she was lost and the Estonia sank by the stern at 01:50.

The Rescue Effort

The nearest Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre MRCC Turku coordinated the effort in accordance with Finland’s plans. The Baltic is one of the world’s busiest shipping areas, with 2,000 vessels at sea at any time. The plans assumed the ship’s own boats and nearby ferries would provide immediate help and that helicopters could be airborne after an hour. This scheme had worked for the relatively small number of accidents involving sinkings, particularly as most ships have few people on board.

The first of five ferries to reach the scene was the Mariella, arriving on scene at 02:12. MRC Turku had failed to acknowledge the Estonia’s Mayday call immediately, relaying the distress signal to Helsinki Radio as a less urgent pan-pan message. A full scale emergency wasn’t declared until 02:30, by which time the Mariella had winched open lifeboats into the sea and 13 people transferred onto these boats. The Mariella radioed the positions of other life rafts to Finnish and Swedish rescue helicopters, the first of which arrived at 03:05. The helicopters were a Finnish Border Guard Super Puma OH-HVG and an Agusta Bell 412 OH-HVD. The Agusta Bell rescued 44 people.

Of those plucked from the sea, 138 were rescued alive, one of whom would later die in hospital. The ferries rescued 34 and the helicopters 104 because the seas were too rough for the seas to launch their man-overboard lifeboats. Most died by drowning or hypothermia as the water was 10–11 °C and 93 bodies were recovered within 33 days and one body was recovered 18 months later. The survivors of the shipwreck were mostly young, of strong constitution, and male. Seven over 55 years of age survived; there were no survivors under age 12. About 650 people were still inside the ship when it sank, and are believed to remain there.

Cause of the Sinking

Divers and remote vehicles from a Norwegian company Rockwater A/S were contracted for the investigation. The official report concluded that the bow door visor locks failed because of the force of the waves hitting it, allowing water to seep past the bow ramp onto the vehicle deck. The visor detached at points that would not trigger a “bow door open” warning on the bridge. The bridge itself was too far back to observe the visor. The first loud metallic bang heard on board was believed to be the sound of the visor’s lower locking mechanism failing and subsequent sounds were caused by the visor flapping against the hull. The report was critical of the crew’s actions, particularly for failing to reduce speed before investigating the noises emanating from the bow and for being unaware that the list was being caused by water entering the vehicle deck. There were also general criticisms of the delays in sounding the alarm, the passivity of the crew, and the lack of guidance from the bridge.

Following the sinking, many relatives of the deceased demanded that their loved ones be raised from international waters 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. The Swedish government suggested burying the entire ship in situ in a concrete shell, citing the practical difficulties and the moral implications of raising decaying bodies from the sea floor (the majority of the bodies were never recovered). To this end thousands of tons of pebbles were dropped on the site, but the project was never completed. The Estonia Agreement 1995, a treaty among Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Denmark, Russia and the United Kingdom, declared sanctity over the site, prohibiting their citizens from even approaching the wreck. The treaty is, however, only binding for citizens of the countries that are signatories. At least twice, the Swedish Navy has discovered diving operations at the wreck. The wreck and final resting place of more than 600 people is monitored by radar by the Finnish Navy.

© Blown Periphery 2019

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