I Was There: Remembering the MS Estonia Twenty Years Later

MS Silja Symphony, Baltic Sea, 28 September 1994

The announcements started at 6 a.m.  First in Swedish.  Then in Finnish.  Then in English.

“Ladies and gentlemen: we have been asked by the government of Estonia to take part in a rescue operation.  We will resume our journey after the rescue operation has completed.”

Having passed the stormy late-September night in a haze of Dramamine offered gratis by my pragmatic ferry line, I assumed that such rescue operations must be routine and drifted back to sleep.

The night’s voyage en route from Stockholm to Helsinki had been anything but restful.  My cabin had heaved and tossed with the heavy seas.  Periodically the engines had shuddered like jackhammers.  The ship had lurched through several sharp turns.  More than once the corridor had echoed with urgent cries and rapid footsteps.  (Was this normal for a stormy night in the Baltic? I didn’t know.)

The mysterious and unsettling announcement was repeated every 15 minutes.  At about 0830, showered and dressed, having finally overcome my drowsiness, I ventured out of my cabin in search of information.  Finding news in English was a challenge; finally, from two Americans in the corridor came word of calamity: another passenger ferry had sunk in the stormy night, and our ship was assisting in the rescue of survivors.

Passing through the ship’s atrium on my way to breakfast I came upon a throng of passengers in rapt attention to a Scandinavian news broadcast on an overhead TV set.  I was unable to learn anything about what was going on without understanding the language, but the collective horror of the assembled group was palpable.

Later in the morning I climbed to the ferry’s upper deck.  The view presented a maritime version of an airport’s holding pattern.  Against a slate-gray stormy sky one could see a flock of ships – two other passenger ferries and at least three cargo ships – circling slowly, with a helicopter occasionally passing among them.  Dotting the water were a few empty inflatable lifeboats and life vests.

We did not know it then, but our ferry had been the third to arrive at the disaster scene, at about 0230.  We stayed with the rescue operation until early afternoon.  The atmosphere onboard was somber and  surreal.  None of the grim-faced passengers raised any complaint as the cafeteria switched to paper plates and plastic flatware and began to ration food.

Eventually we resumed course to Helsinki, arriving nearly twelve hours late.

My return ferry from Helsinki was also delayed by 12 hours, because that vessel had been diverted to a shipyard in order to have its bow doors welded shut. Why, I didn’t know until later.

While I was in Helsinki and during the days I spent in Stockholm and Copenhagen afterwards, I never knew exactly what had transpired in the middle of the Baltic Sea.  The sensation of having been so close to disaster was a constant and unnerving companion during the remaining week or so of my Scandinavian stay.

It wasn’t until my flight home to California that I finally learned, from an article in a Newsweek magazine, about the terrible loss of life that had occurred during my eastbound ferry crossing.  Only when I arrived home in Berkeley did the full psychological weight of the experience bear down on me.  I suppose what I went through was a form of PTSD.  I would awaken in early morning darkness with nerves firing all over the inside my skull, I experienced an overwhelming sadness, and I felt compelled to tell absolutely everyone the story of my experiences.  That went on for two or three weeks.

Even today it is painful to retell the story, because the events of the early hours of September 28, 1994, are so starkly tragic.  (In fact, I can’t read this essay aloud without weeping.)

With 20 years’ hindsight, and with the help of post-incident investigative reports and Wikipedia, here is an account of that night.

Estonia The MS Estonia in 1993, from Wikipedia.

The Baltic Sea was rough, “normally bad” for late September according to one ferry captain, with 13 to 20 foot waves and moderate gale force (34 – 45 mph) winds.

In the complete darkness of 0100, the RORO (Roll-On Roll-Off) auto ferry MS Estonia was nearing the midpoint of its journey, having departed Tallinn, Estonia, at 1900 on the previous evening  and due to arrive in Stockholm, Sweden, at 0930.  On board were 989 people – 803 passengers and 186 crew – representing at least 17 nationalities.

The trouble started with a metallic bang originating near the bow of the ship.  Concerned about bow’s “visor” (which could be raised to expose a loading ramp when the ship was in port) the bridge crew checked indicator lights for the visor and ramp and found nothing amiss.

Bow_Visor_Wikipedia An open bow visor – photo from Wikipedia.

Elsewhere on the bridge, some distance away from the conning station, a surveillance monitor displayed real-time video of the inner cargo ramp.  Had the crew checked the monitor, they would have seen the auto deck taking on water.  Unbeknownst to anyone aboard the ship, the bow visor’s lower lock had broken in a manner undetectable via the ship’s sensors.  (Designed for use in coastal waters, the MS Estonia was not constructed to handle the battering of waves in the open sea.)  Over the ten minutes that followed, passengers and crew alike heard heavy metallic thumping sounds as the visor flapped up and down in the heavy seas.

At 0115, the visor broke free of the ship, leaving the bow completely open.  Immediately the ship listed 30 or 40 degrees to starboard.  Rapidly taking on water, the MS Estonia became unsteerable.

At 0120 the ship’s public address system broadcast a faint alarm message in Estonian.  At 0122 the crew broadcast a “Mayday” but failed to follow international conventions.

By 0130 the MS Estonia had tipped onto her side.  By 0150 she had sunk into the sea and disappeared from other ships’ radar.

Of the 989 people who had boarded the MS Estonia in Tallinn, 852 men, women, and children died in the Baltic’s icy waters.

The commission that investigated the sinking estimated that before the ship sank 310 people had climbed up to the outer decks, and 160 had managed to board the lifeboats.  Survivors described the evacuation as an every-man-for-himself free-for-all that left elderly passengers crying in the staircases because they were unable to climb to the outer decks.  Only seven of the survivors were over the age of 55, and none was under the age of 12.

Most who escaped the sinking ship were underdressed for the 52 degree water and the freezing air.  Only 138 people were rescued alive, and one of those later died in the hospital.

Among the 852 who lost their lives on that icy morning were 501 Swedes, 285 Estonians, 17 Latvians, 11 Russians, 10 Germans, 10 Finns, 18 people representing 11 other nationalities.

To affect the U.S. population as heavily as the MS Estonia’s sinking hit Sweden, a disaster would need to take the lives of 17,000 Americans.  To replicate the sinking’s effect upon Estonia, an incident would need to take the lives of 58,000 Americans.

Est_Memorial The Estonia Memorial in Stockholm.

The sinking of the MS Estonia was the worst maritime disaster to have occurred in the Baltic Sea during peacetime.  Like the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the MS Estonia disaster brought about changes to maritime regulations and safety precautions.  Reading the disaster’s Wikipedia page evokes a reading of A Night to Remember.  As is invariably my experience when I contemplate the tragic saga of the Titanic, there are several junctures in the story of the MS Estonia at which I wish for the ability to reach into the past, fix crucial details, and prevent the disaster.








3 thoughts on “I Was There: Remembering the MS Estonia Twenty Years Later

  1. Hello Cynthia, What a scene, what a setting, how traumatic just to be there. In 2003 we saw the memorials in Stockholm and Tallinn. I had forgotten how many were lost. What a remarkable account. Marie

    Liked by 1 person

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