As MS Estonia sailed through the chilly Baltic Sea on the night of September 27, 1994, its passengers were unaware of the tragic fate that awaited them.
What started as a routine voyage from the Estonian capital, Tallinn, to Stockholm, Sweden, quickly turned into a nightmare that would haunt the survivors and the families of the victims for years to come.
The ferry, carrying 989 passengers and crew, was engulfed by a merciless storm, its waves crashing against the vessel. As the ship rocked violently, the terrified passengers clung to each other, praying for the storm to subside.
But the worst was yet to come.
In a matter of minutes, the MS Estonia began to sink, its massive hull disappearing into the depths of the frigid Baltic waters. The chaos that ensued was a tragic reminder of the fragility of human life in the face of nature’s fury.
Only 137 people survived the disaster, leaving behind a trail of devastation and unanswered questions that continue to haunt us to this day.
What Happened to MS Estonia?
In the early hours of September 28, 1994, MS Estonia met its tragic fate. When disaster struck, the vessel was on a routine journey from Tallinn, Estonia, to Stockholm, Sweden. The sinking of the MS Estonia remains one of the most devastating maritime disasters of the 20th century, claiming the lives of 852 people in the deadliest peacetime catastrophe in European waters.
This tragedy ranks alongside the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the Empress of Ireland in 1914 as one of the deadliest peacetime sinkings of a European ship.
The MS Estonia set sail from Tallinn at 7:15 pm on September 27, 1994, slightly behind schedule. The ship was en route to Stockholm with 803 passengers and 186 crew members, totaling 989 people on board. While most passengers were of Swedish descent, some had Estonian origins. Meanwhile, the majority of the crew members were Estonian nationals.
Fully loaded with passengers and cargo, the MS Estonia was listing slightly to starboard due to poor distribution of the weight of its cargo. Despite this minor issue, the ship continued its journey, with an estimated arrival time of 9:00 am the next day in Stockholm.
Little did anyone know, the voyage would end in tragedy, leaving behind a trail of devastation and heartbreak that would never be forgotten.
According to the final disaster report, the weather conditions on the night of the MS Estonia’s sinking were rough, with strong winds of 34 to 45 mph, force 7–8 on the Beaufort scale, and significant wave heights of 4 to 6 m (13 to 20 ft).
While these conditions were not unusual for autumn storms in the Baltic Sea, modeled satellite data indicated gusts exceeding 85–100 km/h (24–28 m/s) at 01:00 that night over the Baltic Sea.
Despite the harsh weather, all scheduled passenger ferries were at sea, a common occurrence during such weather conditions. While the exact speed of the MS Estonia at the time of the accident is unknown, the official report states that the vessel had a regular voyage time, averaging 16 to 17 kn (30 to 31 km/h).
The chief mate of the Viking Line cruise ferry, Mariella, tracked the MS Estonia’s speed by radar at approximately 14.2 km (26.3 km/h) before the first signs of distress. In comparison, the officers of the Silja Europa estimated the vessel’s speed at 14 to 15 kn (26 to 28 km/h) at midnight.
The first indication of trouble on board, the MS Estonia, occurred at around 01:00, while the ship was on the outskirts of the Turku archipelago when a metallic bang was heard, presumably caused by a heavy wave hitting the bow doors.
However, an inspection limited to checking the indicator lights for the ramp and visor revealed no problems. In the next ten minutes, similar noises were reported by passengers and crew.
At approximately 01:15, the visor is believed to have separated and torn open the loading ramp behind it, causing the ship to list heavily to starboard immediately. The initial list was around 15 degrees, but by 01:30, the MS Estonia had rolled 60 degrees, and by 01:50, the list had reached a full 90 degrees as water flooded into the vehicle deck.
The ship was turned to port and slowed down, but all four engines eventually cut out completely.
Around 01:20, a calm female voice broadcasted a distress call over the public address system in Estonia, announcing, “Häire, häire, laeval on häire,” which translates to “Alarm, alarm, there is an alarm on the ship” in Estonian.
An internal alarm for the crew immediately followed this, followed by the general emergency signal one minute later. However, the ship’s rapid list and flooding prevented many cabin passengers from ascending to the boat deck.
Not only did water flood the vessel via the car deck, but it also came through cabins and massive windows along deck 6. The powerful waves caused the windows to give way as the ship listed and the sea reached the upper decks, causing water to flow down from ceiling panels, stairwells, and corridors from decks that were not yet submerged, ultimately contributing to the rapid sinking.
At 01:22, the crew of Estonia communicated a mayday, but it did not follow international protocols. Initially, the ship contacted Silja Europa before the radio operator finally uttered “Mayday.” The chief mate of Silja Europa, Teijo Seppelin, replied in English, “Estonia, are you calling mayday?” Third mate Andres Tammes then took over the conversation and switched to Finnish.
After the distress call was made, third mate Andres Tammes provided some details about the situation on board Estonia. Still, due to a power loss, he could not provide the ship’s exact location, which caused a delay in the rescue operations. Unfortunately, Tammes would later perish in the sinking.
However, a few minutes later, power was restored, or someone on the bridge could check the marine GPS to determine the ship’s position, which was then radioed to Silja Europa and Mariella. At around 01:50, Estonia disappeared from the radar screens of other ships.
After receiving the mayday call, nearby ships, including Silja Europa, Mariella, and Viking Sally, immediately changed course to head towards Estonia’s last known location. The Finnish Border Guard dispatched patrol boats and helicopters to join the search and rescue operation. The first rescue helicopter arrived on the scene at 02:12, but due to the extreme weather conditions, it could not locate any survivors.
Despite the efforts of the search and rescue teams, only 137 people were rescued from the water, mainly by the Estonian and Finnish vessels EVA-316 and Tarmo. The search for survivors continued for several days, but no more survivors were found.
Under darkness, the Mariella arrived as the first of five ferries to reach the disaster scene. The cries of the distressed were met with eerie silence as MRCC Turku failed to acknowledge the urgent Mayday call.
A sense of dread lingered in the air as Mariella relayed the report as a less urgent pan-pan message, delaying the declaration of a full-scale emergency until 30 minutes later. Mariella winched open the liferafts, a beacon of hope amidst the darkness, onto which only 13 survivors on Estonia’s rafts successfully transferred.
As the rescue helicopters arrived, they faced the daunting task of locating the remaining rafts.
With great courage, the Finnish border guard helicopters OH-HVG and OH-HVD chose the perilous path of landing on the ferries, while MS Isabella saved 16 survivors with its rescue slide. In the end, the bravery of these rescue teams saved many, but the darkness of that night would never be forgotten.
The tragic event claimed the lives of 852 individuals, leaving behind a mere fraction of survivors. Out of the 989 individuals on board, only 138 were fortunate enough to be rescued, with ships and helicopters playing a crucial role in this rescue mission. Despite the planners’ initial intentions, the ferries could not utilize their MOB boats or lifeboats due to the danger that awaited them.
Those who were not rescued met a terrible fate, succumbing to the freezing temperatures of the water, causing them to perish by drowning or hypothermia.
Among the tragic victims of the Estonia sinking was Urmas Alender, a renowned Estonian singer. The recovery efforts managed to retrieve 94 bodies, with the last victim found 18 months after the disaster.
Shockingly, by the time rescue helicopters arrived, a third of those who had escaped from the sinking ship had already succumbed to the frigid waters and hypothermia, and less than half of those who had managed to leave the vessel were ultimately rescued.
The majority of survivors were young men with sturdy constitutions, as there were no survivors under the age of 12 and only seven over the age of 55. An estimated 650 people remained trapped inside the ship as it descended into the depths.
The official investigation suggested that up to 310 passengers managed to make it to the outer decks; out of those, 160 could board life-rafts or lifeboats.
The Results of the Official Investigation into the Sinking of MS Estonia
The eerie examination of sunken Estonia was carried out by a team of divers from a Norwegian company, Rockwater A/S, and remotely operated underwater vehicles. According to the official report, the failure of the locks on the bow door was the root cause of the disaster.
The violent waves had pushed the door beyond its capacity, causing it to break away from the vessel and drag the ramp behind it ajar.
Shockingly, the bow visor and ramp had been torn off in a way that would not have triggered a warning on the bridge, where the visor could not even be seen. The visor’s design was found to be subpar, as the manufacturers needed to consider it critical for the ship’s safety.
The horrifying metallic bang heard was believed to be the sound of the visor’s locking mechanism failing.
This was followed by the flapping of the visor against the hull as the other locks failed before tearing free and exposing the bow ramp. The resulting flooding of the vehicle deck caused the ship to capsize and sink, as RORO ferries are particularly susceptible to capsizing if the vehicle deck is even slightly flooded.
The capsizing was exacerbated by the free surface effect of the water swirling across the large area of the vehicle deck, which hindered the ship’s ability to right itself. The same disastrous effect had caused the MS Herald of Free Enterprise to capsize seven years earlier.
The investigation findings revealed that the crew had made several errors, such as neglecting to slow down the vessel before inspecting the unusual sounds from the bow and not recognizing that the listing was due to the flooding of the vehicle deck.
The report also highlighted the crew’s inaction, the delayed issuance of the alarm, and the absence of clear instructions from the bridge. The report further proposed modifications to comparable ships, including separating the condition sensors from the latch and hinge systems.
These essential safety measures and regulations were implemented due to the Estonia ferry disaster. The crew members on all passenger ships are now required to undergo special training in crowd and crisis management, human behavior, and watch-keeping standards.
The distress beacons, or EPIRBs, must activate automatically in an emergency. New regulations for rescue from listing ships in rough waters have been introduced. New designs, such as the “citadel concept,” have been proposed to ensure damaged ships have sufficient buoyancy to remain afloat.
Finally, SOLAS 90 specifies existing passenger ships’ stability requirements, and those in North West Europe must be able to survive 50 cm of water on the car deck. These regulations are intended to improve safety and prevent future disasters like the one with the Estonia ferry.
Did the MS Estonia hit a Submarine?
Numerous theories about the cause of MS Estonia’s sinking have circulated for years, yet none have been conclusively proven. Some theories include colliding with another vessel, whether a military ship or a submarine.
In a horrifying revelation, a Swedish documentary on 28 September 2020 exposed a ghastly 4-meter hole in the ship’s hull. The Estonian government reacted quickly, and the prime minister and foreign minister met with their Swedish and Finnish counterparts to announce a new technical investigation into the incident.
The head of the Estonian investigation publicly stated that this new information pointed to a possible collision with a submarine and that the hole could not have happened after the ship had sunk.
In October 2020, the Estonian government reported that the hole was too small to have sunk the ship so rapidly. Adding to the horror, the Swedish documentary makers were prosecuted for breaching the sanctity of the wreck but were initially acquitted on 8 February 2021.
However, in a shocking turn of events, a retrial in September 2022 finally found the filmmakers guilty, and they were slapped with a hefty fine.
Experts advised the filmmakers that a huge external force would be necessary to create the rupture, which raised serious doubts about the events of that fateful night. Carl Eric Reintamm, one of the survivors, shared his conviction that the actual truth differs from what has been communicated.
According to the program, witnesses heard a deafening explosion, and Reintamm reported seeing a huge white object near the ship, a detail that had not been previously considered.
By June 2021, the Swedish and Estonian Parliaments passed laws allowing the examination of the wreck for investigation of the disaster, leading to the Swedish Accident Investigation Authority announcing their plans to conduct dives at the grave site starting July 2021.
Other theories suggest that organized crime gangs were involved or that an explosion occurred on the ship. Despite the ongoing speculation, the truth behind the tragic incident that claimed the lives of so many remains shrouded in mystery.
Concerning the reason for the sinking, there are conspiracies. According to the German journalist Jutta Rabe and the British publication New Statesman, the Swedish, British, and Russian governments allegedly covered up an intelligence operation smuggling military equipment aboard the civilian ferry by concealing the results of laboratory tests on debris illegally recovered from Estonia’s bow.
These tests revealed traces of a deliberate explosion, the publication’s claim. Joint Accident Investigation Commission members refuted these assertions, claiming that the damage visible on the debris was caused when the visor detached from the boat.
The Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing in Germany, whose findings were quoted by the JAIC, concluded that Jutta Rabe’s samples did not demonstrate an explosion had taken place.
Did the MS Estonia Transport Military Hardware?
On Sveriges Television in the autumn of 2004, a former Swedish customs officer asserted that Estonia had been used to transfer military hardware in September 1994. Following the start of independent investigations by the governments of Sweden and Estonia, it was determined that the ship was equipped with non-explosive military hardware on September 14 and 20 of that year.
The Swedish Ministry of Defence claims that no such equipment was aboard on the accident day, and earlier examinations by the Swedish Customs Service revealed no information about any reports of suspicious behavior in the days leading up to the disaster.
Following the disaster, many of the deceased’s family members begged that their loved ones be removed from international waters and buried on land. It was also demanded that the entire ship be lifted so that a thorough investigation could be done to determine what caused the accident.
The Swedish government proposed burying the entire ship in place in a concrete shell because retrieving decomposing bodies from the ocean floor presents physical challenges and moral dilemmas (the majority of the dead were never recovered), and because doing so would be expensive.
Thousands of tonnes of pebbles were thrown onto the site as a first step. The site was proclaimed sacred by the 1995 Estonia Agreement, a pact by Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Denmark, Russia, and the United Kingdom, forbidding their residents from even coming close to the wreck.
Only the citizens of the signatory nations are subject to the treaty’s legal obligations. The Swedish Navy has discovered diving activity at the wreck at least twice. The Finnish Navy uses radar to monitor the wreck’s whereabouts.
As we conclude this tragic chapter of MS Estonia, one thing is clear – the sea is unforgiving, and those who travel upon it are always at peril. The loss of life and devastation caused by the sinking of Estonia serves as a haunting reminder of the dangers of the sea and the importance of proper safety measures.
The new investigations and findings have only added to the mystery surrounding the disaster. Still, it is our duty to continue seeking answers and justice for the victims and their families. May their souls rest in peace, and may we always remember the lessons learned from this tragic event as we continue to navigate the unpredictable waters of the sea.
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Let us improve this post!
Tell us how we can improve this post?