19 April 2012 by Pelle Neroth
The ferry was on its way from post-Soviet Tallinn to Stockholm; many of the mostly Swedish passengers were on the return leg of a two night cruise. The disaster deeply affected the small city of Stockholm. Multiply the death toll by eight and you'll understand the equivalent impact on a city like London.
These cruises are traditionally popular with Swedes. People could picture themselves trapped in the cabins, or in corridors, of those caught below deck, and everyone seemed to know someone who had died. My best friend's sister drowned. She was attending a ship-based conference with her company, and her cabin was situated below the waterline. The accident happened at 1am on a stormy autumn night in the middle of the Baltic; many of the 137 survivors were those who were staying up drinking late at the night club on the top deck.
Officially the bow door visor, connected to the car deck ramp, broke open under the force of oncoming waves as the ship kept up top speed in the face of the storm. Great volumes of water then sloshed in and filled the car deck, sinking the 157 metre, 15,000 tonne vessel.
However, some Swedish journalists argued that, had the accident happened as thus described, the ferry would have capsized and floated on the trapped air in the lower decks, as happened when the Polish ferry Jan Heweliusz sank in 1993. Or as the Herald of Free Enterprise would have done when it sailed out of Zeebrugge with its car deck doors open in 1987 - had the water been deep enough. In the event, the British ferry turned rapidly - in 90 seconds - over to its side when water entered and came to rest sideways in the shallow Belgian waters.
The Estonia, in contrast, sank slowly and at an increasing angle, over the course of an hour. Could there have been another cause of the Estonia's sinking: perhaps a hole below the waterline?
In addition, two Estonian crew in the engine room reported that the inner car deck ramp was only partially open, and not letting in huge amounts of water. The Swedish government refused another round of diving investigations, even though the Estonia was located only 80 metres down, saying that the "watery grave" should not be disturbed.
But bowing to public pressure, in 2006 the Swedish government appointed two teams. One of these included the Glasgow based company Safety at Sea, which has participated in several extensive investigations into ship sinking with the aim of knowing how to build the ships of the future in a safer way. A detailed four metre model of the Estonia was used to simulate scenarios of the sinking in a large lab tank of water.
After two years of deliberations, the consortias concluded that the Estonia had sunk more or less along the lines that the original accident commission had set out in 1997. Still, the Safety at Sea consortium's final report called for at least some further checks of the hull. It would be a few days' work with dive teams and ROVs, and cost maybe 3 million kronor (around £300,000).
I worked as a journalist in Estonia in 1992 and 1993.
Just after the Soviet collapse, it was pretty chaotic, and you could buy a Kalashnikov for 50 dollars. There is no reason to doubt the findings. But conspiracy theories about bombs planted by the Russian mafia below the waterline continue to flourish. That's the nature of conspiracies. The accident remains a traumatic mental wound for Estonians and Swedes.
History Channel TV documentary http://bit.ly/IGaiK5
Accident report: (link removed 09/07/12 as document no longer available at this location)
Post-Estonia ferry safety regulations: http://bit.ly/IxB7U4
Recommended reading: The Hole, Drew Wilson, The Outlaw Sea, William Langewiesche
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Edited: 09 July 2012 at 11:02 AM by View from Brussels Moderator
Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 19 April 2012 09:51 AM General
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