The Sinking of the MS Estonia

Updated on October 3, 2017
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

MS Estonia

Model of MS Estonia at the Swedish Maritime Museum
Model of MS Estonia at the Swedish Maritime Museum | Source

Rough Seas

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

Diagram of the MS Estonia showing her top five decks
Diagram of the MS Estonia showing her top five decks | Source

The Sinking

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”

Type: Cruiseferry

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)

Decks: 9

Speed: 21 kn (39 km/h; 24 mph)

Capacity: 2000 passengers; 460 cars

Rescuers

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

MS Estonia started out as the cruiseferry MS Viking Sally (seen here in Stockholm circa 1980s). MS Viking Sally was sold to Estline in 1993 and renamed MS Estonia
MS Estonia started out as the cruiseferry MS Viking Sally (seen here in Stockholm circa 1980s). MS Viking Sally was sold to Estline in 1993 and renamed MS Estonia | Source

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

Site of the MS Estonia wreck.
Site of the MS Estonia wreck. | Source

Aftermath

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

Conspiracy theories abound about the sinking of the MS Estonia:

  1. The ship was transporting drugs and stolen Russian military contraband destined for the CIA by the UK's MI6.

  2. The death toll should be higher as about 150 Iraqi Kurds were aboard, smuggled inside vehicles.

  3. Terrorist bombs caused the disaster.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

Images Disappearing

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.

Estonian Memorial

Memorial to the victims of the MS Estonia disaster (Tahkuna, Hiiumaa island, Estonia)
Memorial to the victims of the MS Estonia disaster (Tahkuna, Hiiumaa island, Estonia) | Source

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.

Swedish Memorial

Inside the Memorial to the MS Estonia in Stockholm, Sweden.
Inside the Memorial to the MS Estonia in Stockholm, Sweden. | Source

Simulation of the Sinking of MS Estonia

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 David Hunt

    Comments

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      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks, Perspycacious. The Baltic Sea entombs tens and tens of thousands of victims from many sinkings thoughout history. Hope your Thanksgiving was happy.

      • Perspycacious profile image

        Demas W Jasper 

        3 years ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

        The lost deserved to be remembered. Fine Hub. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. (First time I ever heard of a ship being entombed!)

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thank you, askformore. It was a terrible tragedy that I believe should not be allowed to be forgotten as the years pass.

      • askformore lm profile image

        askformore lm 

        3 years ago

        Thank you for an interesting hub about the Estonia sinking. I hope that the complete truth about this will be revealed.

        I am frequently in Estonia and have friends who lost a relative.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thank you for commenting, Trail Finder. There seems to be a lot of strangeness about a lot of things that have happened in the Baltic Sea, which has a long history of tragedies, both man-made and natural.

      • profile image

        Trail Finder 

        5 years ago

        It is my understanding that all the Baltic Sea countries signed the prohibition treaty, but also interestingly also the UK. What has the UK got to do with the wreck and why should it be involved? Definitely strange.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        SilverRingvee, if you do write it, that would be a great hub and very interesting. Good luck!

      • SilverRingvee profile image

        Silver Ringvee 

        5 years ago from Estonia

        Yes, but unfortunately I can not remember these times very well. I am quite sure that most of the information of Estonia is in Estonian - my native language, so maybe I will write an hub about information which you may not no.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        I am very glad to meet you, SilverRingvee and glad you read and commented here. I'm very sorry to hear about your relatives being on board. It must have been very difficult for your family.

      • SilverRingvee profile image

        Silver Ringvee 

        5 years ago from Estonia

        Sinking of Estonia is very serious topic for me. I have read many stories about it and seen many movies. There were some of my relatives on board, and my father was working at Tallinn port this evening. I am from Estonia and I have had several vojages from Tallinn to Stockholm. Usually ships make a little stop to commemorate Estonia. I am really interested in this topic.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Yes. I think that the prohibition feeds many conspiracy theories. But it is my understanding that there are many shipwreck gravesites that are off limits in the Baltic Sea. Thanks for commenting, Enelle.

      • Enelle Lamb profile image

        Enelle Lamb 

        5 years ago from Canada's 'California'

        Very interesting piece. I didn't realize that an agreement had been signed prohibiting any contact with the wreck....does make you wonder though yes?

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks for reading and commenting, Kate. I'm glad you found it so interesting. As I mentioned in the hub, I had heard of the "ferry" disaster when it happened, but had pictured a typical car ferry, say basically a glorified barge. When I actually saw how huge the Estonia was, I knew I had to write about it. The Baltic Sea is full of history and tragic events.

      • Kate Mc Bride profile image

        Kate McBride 

        5 years ago from Donegal Ireland

        I didn't hear of this incident at the time but this well-researched and informative hub gives so much information about it. It was such a tragic loss of so many lives.Voted up and interesting. Thanks for sharing it.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Nice to hear from you, Richawriter, and thanks for the great comment. This has been a popular article and I'm grateful to all the readers.

      • Richawriter profile image

        Richard J ONeill 

        5 years ago from Bangkok, Thailand

        That was an interesting read.

        I enjoy these types of articles based on historical events and you really did a good job here.

        Good research.

        Good writing.

        Good topic.

        I learned a lot and I'm shocked that I had never heard of this terrible disaster until I read your hub. So many lives lost.

        I was in Thailand (still am) when the 2004 tsunami hit and the scale of it was huge, so many lives swept away. The ocean is the most powerful and frightening force on this earth.

        Good job.

        Peace. :)

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks for your comment, sjwalsh, and for reading my articles. I only barely remember this when it happened. Since I've joined HubPages, I've taken an interest in the Baltic countries partly because that area rarely makes the news but there's a lot that has happened and is happening there.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        DMVmimay, I apologize for the long delay approving your comment. Somehow I missed it. Thanks very much for reading and commenting (despite the long wait).

      • sjwalsh profile image

        Stephen Walsh 

        5 years ago from Brookline, MA

        I had not known much about this incident until reading this article. I will be spending plenty of time reading your work!

      • profile image

        DMVmimay 

        5 years ago

        very interesting topic.. i had fun reading this lens, very nice! very nifty :)

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Hi Natashalh. Thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed it. I don't know about you but realizing that 1994 is already 18 years ago is pretty sobering. As I mentioned, I vaguely remember the incident, but didn't realize the ferry was so enormous or the loss of life so terrible.

      • Natashalh profile image

        Natasha 

        6 years ago from Hawaii

        Wow. I don't remember this event at all! Thanks for the information.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks for the comment, JMCL162. Yes, theories and questions continue to swirl around the MS Estonia. And thanks for the share.

      • JMCL162 profile image

        JMCL162 

        6 years ago from New York

        Interesting and well-written hub. Your piece is the first that I have heard of this incident. It sounds like a very tragic and strange event. Voted up and shared.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Very interesting comment, Estonian. I will definitely keep it in mind in future.

      • profile image

        Estonian 

        6 years ago

        There´s many hidden truth about the catastroph. The ship was built unsinkable (german built), but it sank fast and in the wreck theres a big hole looking like made by bomb, which explains that. At the time when there were britain divers team looking for evidents they also saw underwater military frogmen which dissapeared. The divers team were looking some "suitcase" and did not payd much attention to cicrumastances on the deck or other important matter, at least the recordings are so. Capten of the ship was rescued and interviewed after the accident. He with nine other people who were on the saved list, dissapeared mysticly. Yet there are people, who claim they saw capten Phil giving interview on german tv station. After the accident many other witnesses have also died. Investigator Juta Rabe with divers bringed up also pieces from explosion from that hole, which was improved in labaratories to have an explosion signs. The general Einseln returned to Estonia 1993 to take command of its military forces from US. After the accident he had told that it was an assault against Estonian country, which he never replyd. He went back to the US 1995 because of disagreement with the defense minister. There were sure an assault, but what kind of? Today we belong to EU, and were not happy about it at all. We want to be independent country with our own decisions. Sadly we have the same ministers in charge who came from soviet times and they are actually puppet regime. I think under the zog. So you can make your own judgement where does the Europe and EU aim at. After all we are told to be one of the best excample of Eu coyntries. Of course with a expense of people, who accept ta wage 3-5 times lower than in Eu avarage at the same level of expenture prices.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        I appreciate the vote up, Larry. Yeah, I can't understand the agreement and rush to keep everyone away. Divers from non-signatory nations have also been stopped from diving-- in international waters. Thanks again.

      • Larry Fields profile image

        Larry Fields 

        6 years ago from Northern California

        Voted up and interesting.

        The existence of the Estonia Agreement suggests that there was gross negligence on the part of people in several of the signatory countries, and that the agreement itself was a big CYA maneuver.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks very much for the comment, Wesman. I know how you feel. I vaguely remember thinking that the ferry was some barge-like thing with cars on it at the time but it wasn't like that at all. It was a huge ship.

      • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

        Wesman Todd Shaw 

        6 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

        Awesome write up, Sir, and I'm ashamed to say that I have forgotten all about this one, and never even knew about all the conspiracies involved.

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