MS Estonia: Consigned to Mystery

About 30 nautical miles northwest of Hiiumaa’s Tahkuna Peninsula lies the wreck of the ferry Estonia, which sank during a storm just after midnight on 28 September 1994, en route from Tallinn to Stockholm. Only 137 people survived the tragedy, which claimed 852 lives in one of Europe’s worst maritime disasters.

The cause of the tragedy remains the subject of contention and conspiracy theory. In 1997 the final report of the Joint Accident Investigation Commission (JAIC), an official inquiry by the Estonian, Swedish and Finnish governments, concluded that the ferry’s design was at fault and the crew were probably underskilled in emergency procedures. The report claimed the bow gate was engineered inadequately for rough sailing conditions and that during the storm the visor was torn from the bow, exposing the car deck to tonnes of seawater that sank the Estonia completely within one hour. Escape time for the 989 people on board was estimated at only 15 minutes and they were denied access to lifeboats due to the sudden list and sinking of the ferry. For those who did escape, the freezing conditions of the water that night reduced survival time to only minutes.

The integrity of the report was questioned after dissent within the JAIC became public. In 2000 a joint US-German diving expedition and new analyses of the Estonia’s recovered visor prompted theories of an explosion on board. Conspiracy theorists claim that the Estonia was transporting unregistered munitions cargo, as an illicit trade in weapons was to be curtailed with new export laws about to come into effect. Claims of a cover-up have been bolstered by the alleged disappearance of eight crew members, initially listed as survivors.

Unexplained interference with the wreck, along with the Swedish government’s dumping of sand to stabilise it in 2000, further fuelled conspiracy claims and calls for a new inquiry. The governments of Estonia, Finland and Sweden are resolute that the ferry will remain where it sank as a memorial to the dead; an estimated 700 people are thought to be inside.