The big ship sails on the ally ally o
On the 27th September 1994 the MS Estonia cruise ferry departed from Tallinn in Estonia carrying almost one thousand passengers and crew on its scheduled overnight voyage to Stockholm in Sweden across the Baltic Sea. Weather conditions were described as normally bad by a seasoned seafarer and there were no cancelled services with scheduled ferries remaining at sea. The seaworthy vessel was in good condition and it departed with a complete crew. It was fully loaded with a slight but insignificant starboard list from cargo disposition.
Almost seven hours into the voyage the vessel was cruising at its normal operating speed amidst typically rough Baltic seas. On the outskirts of the Turku archipelago a heavy wave hit the bow doors and a loud metallic bang reverberated throughout the vessel. A brief visual inspection merely involved checking the red and green indicator lights for ramp and visor locking mechanisms, which identified no significant problems with the structural integrity of the vessel. Passengers and several crew reported hearing similar strange noises over the next ten minutes when the bow’s visor suddenly opened and a heavy starboard list emerged. A frail warning in Estonian was broadcast over the public address system followed by the crew’s internal coded signal before the general lifeboat alarm was activated during the uncontrolled abandonment of the vessel.
The vessel manoeuvred to port, which escalated flooding and the rapidly increasing list prevented many passengers from reaching the boat deck as incoming seawater engulfed cabins. Waves crashed through the ship’s massive windows on upper levels and sent water cascading through ceiling panels, which inundated stairwells and corridors. Several Mayday broadcasts failed to align with international maritime distress protocols and the transmission of messages was impeded by several language barriers. This was exacerbated by a power failure that disabled navigational instruments and the vessel was initially unable to determine its precise location.
Its manually operated distress beacons were never activated and delayed emergency response and rescue efforts accordingly. Power was eventually restored via an emergency generator, which enabled transmission of its coordinates and precise location to other marine traffic and aircraft. In less than an hour the vessel was inundated by seawater, which caused it to roll almost ninety degrees and cut its four engines and main generator. The vessel suddenly disappeared from radar screens on other ships and sank stern first to a depth of approximately 80 metres in international waters.
Preliminary response was impeded by several anomalies regarding the transmission of radio signals between various vessels and onshore agencies. This was exacerbated by irregularities covering acknowledgement and interpretation of Mayday signals and power failure aboard the MS Estonia. The Finnish Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre at Turku accepted control of search and rescue efforts. However, the organisation initially failed to categorise the event as a major incident or broadcast its role and intentions. This involved synchronising the response via its documented plans, which aligned with internationally recognised conventions.
Five passenger ferries operating on various routes across the Baltic Sea provided initial assistance and the captain of MS Silja Europa was appointed as the on-scene commander for the rescue operation. MS Mariella was the first vessel to reach the scene almost 50 minutes after receiving the initial Mayday signal. Its crew encountered many distressed victims screaming for assistance from the bitterly cold water amidst the stricken vessel’s emergency equipment, which included lifeboats, life rafts and lifejackets. The MS Silja Europa arrived almost 30 minutes later to coordinate and participate in search and rescue activities followed by the three remaining passenger ferries. Additional assistance was provided via a fleet of rescue helicopters and the Finnish coast guard patrol vessel.
Over ten hours after the distress call many more ships joined the search and rescue mission, which included an increasing number of helicopters and several aircraft. Squally conditions prevented vessels from launching rescue craft and their man over board boats were painstakingly lowered into the water. The marooned survivors drifting in lifeboats or inflatable dinghies were transferred across, raised to safety and afforded first aid. One of the passenger ferries was able to activate its rescue slide and pulled over a dozen survivors aboard.
The fleet of helicopters initially required searchlights to locate survivors until daybreak. Despite prevailing conditions the Finnish coastguard helicopters retrieved and transferred numerous survivors onto surrounding passenger ferries, which was described as the most precarious activity during the entire operation. It soon emerged alternative arrangements were required and additional support was provided via Swedish helicopters. Survivors were transported to nominated onshore locations, which included the Utӧ and Nauvo islands in the Turku archipelago and Hanko on the mainland in southern Finland After stabilisation and assessment via a triage nurse the casualties were relocated to designated hospitals for further treatment.
Despite the complexity of helicopter rescue arrangements and its inherent risks, the retrieval of survivors proceeded without any major additional complications although several unnecessary and unanticipated impediments emerged. On a number of flights rescue crews were accompanied by media representatives and journalists. Several Swedish helicopters encountered problems with defective winching mechanisms, which significantly limited the retrieval of survivors during rescue attempts.
The Utӧ Island onshore facility was equipped with a permanent refuelling facility for maritime rescue helicopters although its reserves were significantly depleted following an oil spill exercise the previous evening. During rescue operations it ran out of aviation fuel, which could not be replenished until the following day. The helicopters refuelled using alternative designated response centres at Nauvo, Turku or Hanko on the south coast peninsula. These nominated rescue facilities were further afield, which placed additional demand on fuel resources and increased emergency response times accordingly. It also disrupted the planned meal arrangements for many of the rescue helicopter crews. Aviation fuel was eventually depleted at the Hanko facility although a delivery tanker replenished supplies later in the morning.
After almost nine hours of frantic search and rescue efforts following the initial distress call no additional survivors or bodies were located in the immediate environs of the capsized vessel. The search area was subsequently extended in the direction of the calculated drift and systematically patrolled until sunset. This involved an increasing number of merchant vessels with assistance from helicopters and reconnaissance aircraft. The MS Silja Europa was the last vessel to leave the scene almost 20 hours later. It was relieved by the Finnish coastguard vessel, which continued patrolling the search and rescue zone for a further five days.
The majority of survivors were rescued via the fleet of Finnish and Swedish helicopters, which retrieved 104 people although one victim subsequently died in hospital. Passenger ferries and other vessels saved another 34 individuals and 94 deceased victims were eventually recovered from the sea. Most of the 757 missing people were trapped aboard the MS Estonia and went down with the vessel. After locating the wreck, diving teams completed a partial survey of the capsized vessel, which discovered approximately 130 victims. This was confined to inspecting public areas and cabins on its port side and somewhat restricted by poor visibility and swirling debris. A subsequent analysis of paint from the recovered bow visor revealed no traces of any explosive residues. The incident was one of the worst maritime disasters in the 20th century with the loss of 852 people.
Official investigations were conducted via the Joint Accident Investigation Commission of Estonia, Finland and Sweden. Its subsequent report indicates the initial loud metallic bang that reverberated throughout the vessel occurred when the locking mechanisms and hinges of the bow visor failed. Following the impact of several waves the vessel’s bow visor jolted and shuddered forward, which allowed water to enter the car deck via its sides through the partially exposed ramp. The vessel continued its journey although its ramp remained insecurely balanced and somewhat unprotected within the flapping visor, which eventually dislodged and pulled the access ramp fully open.
Seawater inundated the car deck and the free surface effect that caused the MS Herald of Free Enterprise to capsize some seven years earlier, soon rendered the vessel unstable. Its list rapidly deteriorated and within an hour the vessel disappeared from radar screens and sank to the bottom of the Baltic Sea. The report suggests the MS Estonia was intended to operate in coastal waters and the design and structural integrity of the bow visor and auxiliary mechanisms was inadequate, especially on open seas with regular exposure to large waves and impact induced stress. However, the German shipbuilders claim the vessel was inadequately maintained and travelling at excessive speed.
Estline, the shipping company operating the vessel paid approximately $200 million for loss and damages to survivors and dependents via an indemnity fund and went into receivership at the turn of the millennium. In 1996 the bereaved dependents continued their quest for justice and launched a class action against the vessel’s French certification agency Bureau Veritas and Meyer Werft the German shipbuilder. Legal representatives were able to have the case heard in France because the event occurred in international waters and involved several European Union countries. Moreover, the French legal framework was perceived as the most modern and socially progressive regarding claims for damages.
Following typical delay, deny and die tactics the case was eventually heard over two decades later at a courthouse in the western Parisian suburb of Nanterre. The claim was rejected because the legal team failed to prove gross or intentional fault and the plaintiffs were ordered to pay approximately $175,000 in costs towards the defendants. The case was initially filed in September 1996 and took decades to be heard amidst many legal delays and technicalities. A German lawyer representing the families described the verdict as a big disappointment although it did not come as a surprise considering the appallingly callous treatment meted out to the bereaving litigants over many years.……The big ship sinks to the bottom of the sea on the last day of September.