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M/S Estonia Disaster

Written by Erol EryaşaThe disaster in which the ship named M/S Estonia sank at Baltic Sea occurred on 28 September 1994. That was one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century. None knows why that happened! which is why people still discuss the reason of the tragedy and mystery of accident. Technical details are prescribed below.

 Length  157.02 m
 Beam  24.21 m
 Draught  5.55 m
 Speed  21 knot
 Power  17.625 kW
 Passenger Capacity  2000
 Crew Capacity  1190
 Vehicle Capacity  460

Previously servicing under the registry of three different names such as M/S Viking Sally (1980 – 1990), MS Silja Star (1990 – 1991), and MS Wasa King (1991 – 1993), M/S Estonia was a cruise ferry built in 1980 at the German shipyard Meyer Werft in Papenburg. In 1993, it was bought by EstLine Marine Co. Ltd. and changed name as M/S Estonia. She was the largest Estonian ship of the time as it symbolizes the independence that Estonia regained after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

01 - MS Estonia

The disaster occurred at about 00:55 to 01:50 (Local Time) as the ship was crossing the Baltic Sea en route from Tallinn, Estonia, to Stockholm, Sweden at 19:00 on 28 September 1994. Arrival expected in Stockholm was the next morning at about 09:30 and she was carrying 989 people (803 passengers and 186 crew). The disaster had a cost of 852 lives out of 989, and 137 persons were rescued by SAR Helicopters and ships close to the area during Search and Rescue operation. After all, only 95 casualties were found.

Sinking and SAR Effort

02 - Map

Search and rescue operation followed arrangements under the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (the SAR Convention) and the nearest Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre MRCC Turku coordinated the effort in accordance with Finland’s plans.

The Baltic is one of the world’s busiest shipping areas with vessels at sea and these plans assumed that the ships’ own boats and nearby ferries would provide immediate help supported by cooperated airborne helicopters in an hour.

The forecast of weather remarked the wave height of 4 metres, wind force of 7 – 8 beaufort and the water temperature of 10 – 11 °C at the time of the disaster. Esa Mäkelä, the captain of M/S Silja Europa appointed as on-scene commander for the subsequent SAR operation, described the weather as “normally bad”, or like a typical autumn storm in the Baltic Sea for all scheduled passenger ferries were at sea. The official report states that while the exact speed at the time of the incident is unknown, M/S Mariella tracked M/S Estonia’s speed by radar approximately 14.2 knots before the first distress message.

The ship disappeared from the radar screen of other ships at around 01:50 and sank at 59°23′N 21°42′E, about 22 nautical miles on bearing 157° to Utö island, Finland where the approximate depth is 74 to 85 metres.

M/S Mariella, the first of five ferries to reach the scene of the incident, arrived at 02:12 and the first helicopter arrived at 03:05 to the area. Initially taking survivors to shore, the helicopters were then assigned a dicier option of landing on the ferries. The pilot of helicopter stated that landing on the ferries was the most difficult part of the whole rescue operation despite the fact that a single helicopter rescued 44 people, more than all the ferries.

Of the 989 on board, 138 were rescued, but one died later in hospital. Ships rescued 34 and helicopters 104; the reason of the less contribution by the ferries was because of the launching of their crafts and lifeboats. The commission estimated the reach of 301 passengers to upper decks, 160 climbed into the liferafts or lifeboats and missing 757 people, except for 95 of whom were dead, are believed to be inside the ship.

852 lives of casualties; 501 Swedes, 285 Estonians, 17 Latvians, 10 Finns and other 44 of other nationalities; 1 of each from Belarus, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Ukraine and the United Kingdom, 2 from Morocco, 3 from Lithuania, 5 from Denmark, 6 from Norway, 10 from Germany and 11 from Russia.

03 - MS Estonia 2

Investigation of Accident and Report
The wreck was examined by remotely operated underwater vehicles and divers of a Norwegian company, Rockwater A/S, contracted for the investigation. The official report indicated that the locks on the bow visor had failed upon the strain of waves and the visor separated from the rest of the vessel causing mass failure of the ramp. On ship of such kind, free surface effect is particularly vulnerable to cause capsizing in case the car deck is even slightly flooded. It was concurrently hard to proceed SAR operation due to deteriorating weather conditions, which have caused increase in the number of casualties.

At the end of the commission’s report of the reasons; the visor was found 70 meters deep to 1,560 meters west of the wreck on 18 October 1994 and salvaged about the middle of November 1994. It was taken to Hanko, Finland and delivered to Swedish Maritime Museum in 1999, later on moved to the Swedish Naval Base on the island of Muskö.

Lessons Learnt and Precautions

After the accident, important decisions were made concerning Ro-Ro ships, passenger ships, life-saving issues as well as measures to consider. Ro-Ro passenger ships had new design and management style, hence the emergency requirements were issued regarding Ro-Ro’s stability conditions, fast rescue boat requirements and man overboard boats.

International Safety Management (ISM) Code was revived on November 4th, 1993 by the International Marine Organization (IMO) aiming to safe management of ships and avoid marine pollution as required for all passengers and Ro-Ro ships sailing between EU ports, which means they need to acquire ISM certificate of relevance.

Considering the incident M/S Estonia disaster, distress signals which could not be manually activated or automatically activated due to EPIRBs and using of Voyage Data Recorders (VDR) became of necessity to help the investigation of incidents.

In 1999, new standards on navigational watchkeeping, special educational requirements, behaviour pattern of crew amongst passengers and crowd, crisis management were regulated accordingly.

Effect of Incident on Estonia

Since that is a most major disaster in 20th century, it has distinguished in regard to stories with loss of lives.

This accident was like the price of freedom for the country since the time they had been independent from Soviet Union like 3 years ago and the ship name was “Estonia“; they were also small country (the population was around 1,5 million that instant) and almost many beloved ones and relatives passed away in this incident. Estonian government made huge donations to families, especially children whose relatives died in this incident. There are memorials at Tallinn and Stockholm for the ones died in the incident.

Arguments and Interrogation after the Incident

“Relatives of those who died in accident always wished to reveal the case again and investigation of the cause of the accident again since there was a lot of speculation concerned with the causes of the accident. Reason of such is that the truth regarding the accident has still not been so clear and investigation committee has not been good and sufficient at the persuasion of the public causing people still to be interested in the case”. That is quoted and interpreted from EstLine web site through the link below.

Link: http://www.estline.ee/en/28091994

Reason behind the accident was not prescribed properly by The Joint Accident Investigation Commission of Estonia (JAIC) and that brings a lot of intense debates and speculations.

Relatives of those who died in accident requested the bodies to transferred from international seas and delivered to a cemetery in the country. Thus whole ship would easily be salvaged from the sea and they would have a great chance to investigate reasons clearly. Sweden government suggested the derelict to get covered with concrete accounting the difficulties to remove rotten bodies in the sea and practical difficulties to salvage the ship.

In 1995, the area where derelict lies was enshrined with the Estonian Convention undersigned amongst Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Denmark, Russia and England. With this convention diving has been prohibited for citizens of countries undersigned.

In 2006, relatives of those who died in accident requested suspension of the prohibition. Request included some independent group of experts who would investigate the incident. The report compiled by the SSPA consortium generated from The Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems specified reasons as follows.

– Disruption of body integrity causing sea water inlet.
– Damaged stability conditions due to such water inlet causing improper abandonment and evacuation.


There were many claims raised about this accident. Instances of such are therefore the ship was crashed by a submarine; according to some the ship contained ammunition of secrecy which belongs to MI6 and CIA, and this ammunition exploded; they even said that KGB had been in pursuit of Estonian musician Urmas Alender connected with the incident. Indeed the developments that the ship is turned into a mausoleum covered with concrete and prohibition to diving have been within the claims as well.

In addition; the most important claim of the issue is concerned with the Estonian captain Avo Piht, who was passenger that instant. Capt. Piht was also working for EstLine like the current captain of the ship Arvo Andresson. Avo Piht was seen by citizens while helping the survivors as the ship was sinking, and in an official statement by Sweden, Finland and Estonian Authorities, he is declared loss.

04 - Baltic Storm

German journalist Jutta Rabe wrote a book with his own investigation and the book was adapted to a movie named Baltic Storm in 2003.

One of the interesting stories about the incident is also the survival of a Sweden citizen of Turkish origin and his life story. K.K. named Carl Ovberg in passport was a businessman dealing with import and export. In 1971 when 19 years old, he was studying Law, rolex replica watches however arrested for bank robbery and imprisoned for 9 years. Having released of prison, police pursued him since he had 2,5 years more to be imprisoned. He escaped overseas and lived in Sweden. Surviving the Estonia incident, he showed up in the newspapers again.

In conclusion, sinking of Estonia in September 29th 1994 is undoubtedly one of the biggest accidents of modern marine history causing tragic results due to outnumbered death. With numerous resources and investigation about the reasons, debates and claims, the case seems to remain unforgettable to the end of days.

Oceangoing Master Erol Eryaşa
Bahçeşehir University, Vocational High School
Marine Studies Coordinator

Translation: Ece Eldek

Added By: Gizem Sürer










SSPA Research Report No. 134, 2008






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