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The Sinking of the MS Estonia

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.

Model of MS Estonia at the Swedish Maritime Museum

Model of MS Estonia at the Swedish Maritime Museum

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.

Diagram of the MS Estonia showing her top five decks

Diagram of the MS Estonia showing her top five decks

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. 20 minutes later, at 1:50 AM on September 28, 1994, the Estonia slipped from the radar screens and sank in 275 feet of water.


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.

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

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.

Site of the MS Estonia wreck.

Site of the MS Estonia wreck.


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.

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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.

The Latest Theory: Submarine Collision

In 2020, a documentary team, using a German-flagged ship to circumvent the prohibition to approach the site, used a remote-controlled probe to investigate the wreckage. They discovered a previously unknown 4 meters-wide (13 feet) hole in the hull that is “unlikely” to have been caused by a rock on the seabed, but, more likely a collision with a submarine. Estonia, Sweden, and Finland have agreed to assess the new information.

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)

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.

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

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

© 2012 David Hunt


David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on November 27, 2014:

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

Demas W Jasper from Today's America and The World Beyond on November 27, 2014:

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

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on November 15, 2014:

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

askformore lm on November 15, 2014:

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.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on January 13, 2013:

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.

Trail Finder on January 13, 2013:

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.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on November 06, 2012:

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

Silver Ringvee from Estonia on November 06, 2012:

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.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on November 06, 2012:

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.

Silver Ringvee from Estonia on November 06, 2012:

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.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 29, 2012:

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 from Canada's 'California' on October 29, 2012:

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?

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 14, 2012:

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 McBride from Donegal Ireland on October 14, 2012:

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.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 08, 2012:

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.

Richard J ONeill from Bangkok, Thailand on October 08, 2012:

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. :)

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on September 29, 2012:

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.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on September 29, 2012:

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).

Stephen Walsh from Brookline, MA on September 29, 2012:

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

DMVmimay on August 30, 2012:

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

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on August 08, 2012:

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.

Natasha from Hawaii on August 08, 2012:

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

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on August 08, 2012:

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

JMCL162 from New York on August 08, 2012:

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.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on July 13, 2012:

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

Estonian on July 13, 2012:

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.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on March 16, 2012:

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 from Northern California on March 16, 2012:

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.

David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on March 16, 2012:

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 from Kaufman, Texas on March 16, 2012:

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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