The Sinking of the MS Estonia
On the evening of September 27, 1994, the cruise ferry MS Estonia left Tallinn, Estonia, destined for Stockholm, Sweden across the Baltic Sea, a trip of 14 – 15 hours. As Estonia's largest ship, it symbolized their recent independence from Russia. On board were 989 passengers and crew-- 803 passengers (mostly Swedes) and 186 crew (mostly Estonians). It was fully loaded with vehicles and cargo, so much so that it listed slightly due to poor cargo distribution. The Estonia headed off into near-gale conditions with 40 mph winds whipping up waves nearly 20 feet high.
Schematic of MS Estonia
At around 1:00 AM, there was a loud bang from the bow. Unrealized at the time, the “visor”, the front part of the ship which opened up to allow vehicles on and off the Estonia, had been damaged by the continuous pounding of the waves and a hinge had failed. None of the warning lights indicating an open visor lit up because the sensors were positioned such that they would detect if the visor weren't completely closed, not damaged. Passengers and crew reported similar sounds from the front of the ship for the next 15 minutes until the visor actually separated and water poured in, flooding the vehicle deck and causing the Estonia to list heavily starboard (to its right). A few minutes later the crew sounded a general lifeboat alarm followed by a Mayday, although not in the correct international format. By 1:30, the ship was on its side, trapping most of its passengers in their cabins. Twenty minutes later, at 1:50 AM on September 28, 1994, the Estonia slipped from the radar screens and sank in 275 feet of water.
MS Estonia Characteristics
“MS” stands for “Motorized Ship”
Tonnage: 15,566 GRT; 2,800 DWT
Length: 157.02 m (515.16 ft)
Beam: 24.21 m (79 ft 5 in)
Draught: 5.55 m (18 ft 3 in)
Speed: 21 kn (39 km/h; 24 mph)
Capacity: 2000 passengers; 460 cars
The first ferry to reach the scene, the Mariella, arrived at 2:12 and started winching life rafts into the sea, but a full scale emergency was not declared until 2:30 when the extent of the disaster became clear. Other ferries arrived as did rescue helicopters from Finland and Sweden and began searching for survivors. It is estimated that only 310 people were able to get outside the ship, but because of the frigid waters, no children under age 12 and only seven over age 55 survived the freezing seas. Only 137 people survived the sinking of the Estonia; 852 lives were lost. It was the biggest peacetime loss of life on the Baltic Sea in history.
Originally the MS Viking Sally
Investigations and Reports
Official investigations concluded that the bow “visor” was “under-designed” for the Baltic Sea. The Estonia, they concluded, was designed for coastal waters, not the open sea. They were also critical of the crew for not properly investigating the noises and delays in sounding alarms and lack of guidance from the bridge.
The builders of the ship, the Meyer shipyard in Germany, said poor maintenance and excessive speed were the problem.
MS Estonia's Grave
Despite pleas from families of those lost and survivors to raise the ship to recover the bodies for land burial, it was decided that would be too expensive so, instead, the ship was entombed with thousands of tons of sand and pebbles. A year later, a treaty called the Estonia Agreement 1995 between Estonia, Sweden, Finland, Latvia, Poland, Denmark, Russia and the United Kingdom was signed, prohibiting their citizens from even approaching the wreck, declaring it an official burial ground. Finnish radar monitors the site.
Conspiracy theories abound about the sinking of the MS Estonia:
The ship was transporting drugs and stolen Russian military contraband destined for the CIA by the UK's MI6.
The death toll should be higher as about 150 Iraqi Kurds were aboard, smuggled inside vehicles.
Terrorist bombs caused the disaster.
NATO exercises that night jammed communications at precisely the time the Estonia first encountered problems. Also, surely having heard the Estonia's distress signals, no NATO ships or helicopters offered assistance.
The Russians were responsible.
Given the heavy-handedness of the various governments, it's not surprising at the number of conspiracy theories about the sinking. The very fact that it was entombed and that there is a treaty forbidding anyone to investigate the wreckage is bound to lend credence to some sort of cover-up or alternate explanation for one of the world's biggest maritime disasters.
With all the controversy surrounding the sinking of MS Estonia and the various conspiracy theories that just won't die, it does seem odd that over the years public domain images related to MS Estonia are disappearing. For this article alone, two different images of the ferry have been pulled from the public domain and even a public domain image of the Estonian Monument has disappeared. In fact, I can now find no public domain photos of MS Estonia and had to resort to showing a model. It may mean nothing. It may be that the authors are asserting their rights. It may be an attempt to blunt bad publicity. Conspiracists will read something more into it.
Memorial on Hiiumaa island, Estonia
On the northern-most point of the Island of Hiiumaa is a memorial to the 852 victims entombed in the wreckage of the MS Estonia 30 miles to the north. The 12-meter tall rusting frame leans as if it were sinking. A pivoting cross with a bronze bell at the end hangs down in the center. On the bell four children's faces are sculpted. When the wind blows at the same strength and in the same direction it was blowing the night of the disaster, the bell tolls.
Simulation of the Sinking of MS Estonia
Questions & Answers
© 2012 David Hunt