Catastrophe in the Baltic

The sinking of the Estonia in the Baltic in 1994 may have been caused by stormy seas, which ripped off the insecurely-fastened bow doors, allowing a great volume of water to surge into the ferry's car bay, capsizing the ship. But there was a suspicion that the ship was carrying a top-secret cargo and that an explosion on board was the reason for the ship's rapid submersion.

At 1.24 on the morning of September 28, 1994, several ships picked up a distress call from the Estonia: 'There's water rushing into the car deck... we are listing at an angle of 30 degrees.' Then the radio transmission abruptly broke off. Immediately, a number of ships altered course and steered towards the last reported position of the Estonia, which had been sailing from the port of Tallinn to Stockholm. The weather was rough, with a wind of 45-60 miles per hour and waves up to 10 metres high. Radar operators frantically checked their equipment, looking for any sign of the ferry, which had disappeared so abruptly from the screens that they feared their own systems were faulty.

There was no problem with the radar screens, it was simply that the Estonia had gone down in just a few minutes. It was thought that only a hit by several torpedoes or bombs dropped from planes, huge explosions on board, or catastrophic technical failures could have caused such serious damage to a 155-metre-long ferry like the Estonia. But in 1994, with the Cold War a distant memory and Europe at peace, bombs and torpedoes were scarcely a plausible explanation for a maritime disaster that cost the lives of 852 people.


A commission was set up in Sweden to investigate the sinking and the official verdict was that the massive bow door had suffered a technical failure. It had given way under the pressure of pounding waves when the ferry was sailing at full speed. Huge volumes of water surged into the car deck through the open door, and the extra weight of the water prevented the Estonia from correcting the severe list of about 30 degrees that had developed.

In the seventh-deck cabin of Sirje, an employee in the ship's restaurant, a tumbler of water slipped off the table and smashed on the floor. She woke with a start, wondered why the Estonia wasn't righting herself, and knew at once that they were in terrible danger. With some difficulty, she opened the porthole of the cabin and scrambled out. By this time the Estonia was listing so heavily that she was able to walk almost upright on the ship's side. She clambered up to the railings where a man helped her over onto the top deck.


Reaching the deck was no guarantee of safety, as the Estonia was listing more heavily by the minute. When Sirje spotted a red rubber raft, she jumped into the icy waters of the Baltic and a sailor named Silver Linde quickly dragged her on board the emergency raft. For seven hours she lay there, buffeted by rough seas in the tiny craft, which was finally spotted by a helicopter at around 8.30 am. She was one of only 137 people: 94 passengers and 43 crew members - who survived the catastrophe.

Karin Bergquist, a civilian employee of the Swedish police, was sitting in front of a karaoke machine on the ship when she realised that they were in difficulties. Fearing the worst, she ran up to the top deck. She was only aware how severely the Estonia was listing when she reached the deck. The ship's funnel appeared to be almost parallel with the horizon. Bergquist grabbed a lifejacket and clambered over the railing. Just then, a huge wave swept her off the vessel. Bergquist, a trained lifeguard, quickly swam to one of the ship's large self-inflating emergency rafts. She pulled herself on to it, and then helped six other survivors haul themselves on to the raft. Four hours later, she was rescued by the ferry Marietta, which had responded to the Estonia's desperate Mayday signal.

Educational psychologist Rolf Sodermann only survived the disaster because he was sitting next to an emergency exit. As the Estonia plunged, he was forced to jump from the upper deck into the water. He swam to an emergency raft that was bobbing on the waves just 70 metres away from him. 

(At the time, the Estonia was the largest and most up-yo-date ship sailing under the Estonia flag)

The suction created as the ship went down dragged Sodermann backwards in the     

icy water. Distress flares shot into the sky and he found himself surrounded by floating bodies. Somehow he made it to a capsized lifeboat, which he clung on to for the next four hours. He was finally taken on board a Finnish helicopter suffering from hypothermia.

Urban Lambertson hadn't been unduly concerned about the stormy weather on board the Estonia. As a former naval officer

(The passenger ferry M/S Marietta arrived at the scene of the accident at 2.12 am, and was the first vessel to do so. Some survivors had clambered aboard an emergency life raft equipped with a chute, other people were in the icy water. A total of 15 people were transferred directly from the rafts to the Marietta)

and now head of navigation with the Swedish-Estonian shipping line that owned the ship, he had had plenty of experience of scene of the accident at

(After the disaster it was established that weak, poorly constructed attachments on the 50-tonne bow door, or visor, snapped under the weight of unusually powerful waves. At 1.15 am the huge bow door ripped away from the ship completely and crashed into the sea, bouncing off the bulbous bow which extended outwards from the ship)

worse conditions. When, some time after midnight, the ship failed to right herself from a list of some 20 degrees, he knew that something was terribly wrong. While other passengers in the karaoke bar skidded down the smooth wooden dance floor away from the door, Lambertson grabbed hold of the carpet and worked his way up to the exit. As the ship listed ever further to starboard, Lambertson pulled on a lifejacket. The lights were suddenly extinguished, the emergency lights were illuminated on the bridge and a warning signal was sounded - all signs that the ship was doomed. He leapt into the water, made it to an emergency raft just 20 metres away, and hauled himself onto it. Five hours later he was rescued, together with an Estonian man whom he had pulled aboard the raft.


These survivors were lucky; the ferry went down too quickly for most to be rescued. It is precisely the speed of the sinking that continues to fuel speculation about the cause of the disaster. There were three further decks below the level of the car deck. With the bow door detached, a huge volume of water would have rushed into the ship, and she would have 'turned turtle'.

The three lowest decks would have been exposed and the air trapped inside them would have kept the ship afloat for a while. But this did not happen; the Estonia sank like a stone. So, it was reasoned, her hull must have been holed, allowing air to escape.


A Swedish customs officer, Lennart Henriksson, had noticed some strange activity in the weeks leading up to the sinking of the Estonia. On September 14 and 20, just hours before the ship entered the port of Stockholm, his superior had ordered him not to search certain vehicles. Although Henriksson obeyed the order, he was still curious. Stealing a quick glance at the cargo area of one of the trucks, he spotted crates that clearly contained munitions. But it was ten years before Henriksson, who had retired in the interim, approached Swedish television reporters with the revelation. Only in January 2005 did the Swedish government admit that his observation had been correct.

It seemed that military equipment was being smuggled from Russia across the inadequately policed border with Estonia, and from there was being ferried by the Estonia to Sweden. Immediately after the ferry went down, relatives of the victims voiced their suspicions, but the Swedish government denied any such connection. German television journalist Jutta Rabe suspected that neutral Sweden was just a staging post for the traffic and that the ultra-sensitive cargo, which may even have included nuclear-powered satellites, was being forwarded straight on from there to the USA.

Rabe's investigations revealed that, on September 27, 1994, at 18.41 pm, a Boeing 727 aircraft had landed at Sweden's Arlanda airport, where it waited for a cargo from the Estonia. Following the sinking of the ship, the plane took off again for the United States at 19.54 pm on September 28, its mission incomplete. The bill for the landing charges was sent to the US Embassy in Stockholm.


Everything else is pure conjecture. Sweden was - and remains - a non-aligned country and would never have admitted to helping the United States with a clandestine operation. Suspicion was fuelled by the controversy surrounding the treatment of the wreck and the hundreds of bodies still on board. At first the Swedish government gave a solemn undertaking to salvage the wreck and recover the bodies. This did not present any great technical difficulties, since the ship was lying at a depth of just 80 metres, less than 25 miles off the Finnish island of Uto. Neither the depth nor the currents would have hindered a salvage operation.

The families of the victims were therefore astonished when the Swedish government unexpectedly designated the spot where the Estonia had sunk as an official grave site. It was proposed to seal the entire wreck in concrete to ensure that it was never disturbed. The concrete sarcophagus was of the same type that had been used to enclose the exploded nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in the Ukraine - the suggestion bore the hallmarks of a cover-up operation. Did the ship still contain clues that would explain the true cause of the disaster? Rumours circulated that a hole might be found in the steel plating of the Estonia's hull, made either by torpedoes or by explosions on board.

Such speculations have continued to proliferate. The Swedish government still keeps the wreck under close guard. Although it has not actually been encased in concrete, any vessel approaching the site is ordered by a Swedish patrol boat to leave the area, on the grounds that it is a cemetery. When divers commissioned by Jutta Rabe defied the ban and went to investigate the wreck, the Swedes issued a warrant for her arrest for 'desecrating a grave'.

Other investigators, such as Peter Holtappels, head of a German special commission, have also been warned off by the authorities. Holtappels, a former naval judge, argues that air trapped in the lowest three decks of the Estonia should have kept her afloat for far longer than the ten minutes she reportedly took to sink, unless a powerful explosive charge on board the ship or a torpedo had also ripped a hole in her hull. The Russian Mafia is frequently mentioned in connection with the disaster. Or perhaps one nation's security service was so desperate to get rid of a highly sensitive cargo that it was prepared to allow as collateral damage the deaths of 852 people.