Since the “Estonia” sank in 1994, myths about its demise have risen. Was a submarine involved? A new documentary wants to shed light on the darkness. The truth has long been known.
On the evening of September 28, 1994, nothing was as it should be on board the car ferry “Estonia”. In fact, the ship should have left the Estonian capital Tallinn long ago to be in Stockholm on time the next morning. Delayed arrival times cost money, which Captain Arvo Andresson certainly wanted to avoid. He would try to go faster, but the weather forecast didn’t bode well.
For the Finnish south coast, heavy seas were predicted for the Baltic Sea. At 7:17 PM – 17 minutes late – the “Estonia” finally pulled out. It should never arrive. At around 1 a.m., the bow visor in front of the car deck tore off under the pressure of the stormy sea and the water poured unimpeded into the interior of the ferry. 852 people died in the icy Baltic Sea.
Most of them drowned trapped in the ship’s hull, which became a huge steel box, only 94 victims were found floating near the wreckage. 137 passengers and crew survived the disaster. The demise of the “Estonia” is still the greatest shipwreck in post-war history in Europe. In the video above or here see recordings of the survivors.
Where did the long crack come from?
It’s been more than a quarter of a century since the car ferry sunk in the floods – but the waves that hit the disaster at the time have not smoothed out. Numerous conspiracy theories surround the wreckage. And since the Discovery Channel TV channel aired the documentary “Estonia – The Fund That Changes Everything” last month, a new one has been added. In the documentation, underwater photos show a gaping four-meter-long crack in the bow wall of the ferry.
Divers discovered the bow hatch of the “Estonia”. (Source: dpa)
For Margus Kurm, former head of an “Estonia” committee of inquiry, the situation is clear: only a collision with a submarine could have caused this fatal damage. The outrage is big enough that the governments of the disastrous states of Estonia, Sweden and Finland have released a joint statement that they want to sort the matter out now – 26 years after the sinking of “Estonia”.
It wouldn’t be the first search for someone responsible for the tragedy. The first commission of inquiry of the three states worked from 1994 to 1997. According to the results of the study at the time, the disaster was caused by safety deficiencies in the hinged bow visor. The hinges were poorly designed, far too weak to withstand the water pressure in heavy seas.
“No longer fits in the helicopter”
Responsible for the disaster: Meyer Werft in Papenburg, Lower Saxony, where in 1980 the “Estonia” was launched. It’s just a shame that the bolt connecting the hatch to the hull was missing for evidence. Divers were able to recover it from the wreck, but instead of landing the evidence, Börje Stenstörm, representative of the Commission of Inquiry, threw it back overboard into the depths of the Baltic Sea. “It no longer fits in the helicopter,” was his brief explanation.
Meyer Werft – founded in 1795 on the main canal in Papenburg and has been family-owned for seven generations – could not ignore that and put together its own team of experts based on the report. Their main approach was reports from some survivors who had heard the sounds of explosions just before the sinking.
The international team studied video footage taken by dive robots from the side of the ship – and even found ripped-open spots that clearly looked like bomb holes for British ex-marine and explosives expert Brian Braidwood. Hamburg captain Werner Hummel thought he could spot even more undone explosive packages on the hull.
Where did the great pressure come from?
Meyer Werft’s report took off when German television journalist Jutta Rabe and American diver Gregg Bemis launched a secret expedition in 2000, two inconspicuous triangular pieces of metal, about 5 by 15 centimeters in size, from the edge of the alleged bomb holes. and they restored three independent ones. Submitted to institutes for inspection.
All three research institutes agreed: the metal exhibited structural changes – caused by high pressure, probably an explosion. About the same time, an Estonian cadet claimed to have heard a strange radio call on the training ship “Linda” on the eve of the accident. Port control wanted to know from the “Estonia” officers if sniffer dogs had found a bomb on board the ferry, he said in an interview.
In 2000 a diving expedition took place to the wreck of the “Estonia”. (Source: Lehtikuva Martti Kainulainen / dpa)
The bomb theory almost gained momentum – were it not for the news magazine “Der Spiegel”, which initially took part in the repair and investigation of the side wall pieces but then withdrew its support, another view of the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM) would have caught up. The BAM experts concluded that the changes in the metal were in no way the result of an explosion, but rather testified to completely normal anti-rust treatment.
Such traces would result if small steel bullets were fired from a short distance at a speed of 80 meters per second on the ship’s side to clean the sheet metal before the anti-rust paint could be applied – a routine process on ships.
Bombs or security flaws?
However, this did not end the speculation. On the contrary, they really got going when it became known in 2004 that there were not only people and cars on board the “Estonia”. When checking the loading list it had already been noted that there were inconsistencies. In the belly of the “Estonia” were boxes that had not been checked on delivery – were not to be checked.
Now, a Swedish customs officer revealed what this cargo was about: In the mid-1990s, it was common to transport military electronics and weapons from Russia on seemingly harmless civilian passenger ferries across the Baltic. The “Estonia” was another such Trojan horse. An international commission of inquiry was re-established.
Former Estonian Foreign Minister Trimvi Velliste admitted: Yes, he was responsible for these transports – as was then Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar. Particularly spicy: Velliste was a member of the first committee of inquiry into the sinking of the ferry. A computer simulation should now provide final clarity, whether it was bombs or blatant security flaws. The Hamburg Shipbuilding Research Institute in collaboration with the Hamburg University of Technology was commissioned for this.
September 29, 1994: A red life raft from the “Estonia” in the open sea. (Source: ressensbild code 69 / dpa)
The research group calculated models and placed them in a virtual basin in which the stormy Baltic Sea raged on September 28, 1994. The result was clear. Bombs wouldn’t have been necessary to blow off the bow visor. Since the “Estonia” was not actually designed for a voyage on the open sea, it should never have strayed more than 20 nautical miles from the coast. In addition, both the visor and the ramp behind it blocked when the cars were loaded in Tallinn, and crew members reported having to haul mattresses to the bow to seal leaks.
Captain’s fatal mistake
As the calculations quickly made clear, the more than five-meter-high breakers could easily play with the bow visor on the open sea and rip it off like a toy. At first the crew did not notice the damage – the bow of the ship was not visible from the bridge. Only when so much water had flowed into the now open car deck that the “Estonia” suddenly tilted 30 degrees to the side did the alarm bells go off. Captain Andresson tried to turn the ship in the direction of the wind, hoping that the force of the waves and the wind would straighten the ailing ferry.
A fatal mistake, because the centrifugal forces hurled the water in the ferry to the lower starboard side, tore the cars and pushed the ship even lower down. Soon the ferry was so sloped that there was no escape from the inside anymore, it sucked water through the ventilation shafts and slid down at the end at an angle of about 130 degrees.
But how did the four-meter-long crack in the side of the ship that was presented in the movie “Estonia – the find that changes everything” came about? Stefan Krüger, who worked on the simulation at the Institute for Designing Ships and Ship Safety at the Technical University of Hamburg, shrugs at the most with the new speculations – for him it is more the discovery that confirms everything.
“The bow visor was torn away on the starboard side. A corner of the visor was drilled into the side of the ship, which was still moving at 14 knots,” he explains when asked. “In any case, the crack has little influence on the process we reconstructed with the simulation – it’s above the waterline.” In fact, the video recordings show that the crack opens high on the ship’s side, right below the inscription “Estonia” – inaccessible to any submarine. “Ships still obey the laws of nature”, Krüger concludes, “and not wild theories.”