As Anniversary Approaches, Debate on Raising Estonia Ferry Rekindled
Concerns over the status of the sunken Estonia passenger ferry have been voiced again in light of advances in amateur diving capabilities since the 1994 disaster, and unconfirmed reports in a Swedish evening paper that some items have been removed from the wreck over the last 20 years.
The debate has been most prominent in the media in Sweden, the country hardest hit by the disaster in terms of loss of life, after Aftonbladet fueled the concerns by reporting on expeditions to the site.
The ferry is resting in a deep part of the shallow Baltic Sea about 80 meters down, which is well within the range of amateur divers, experts told ETV. It has been declared a grave site, but that distinction has little legal weight.
Pasi Staff, the head of the Maritime Surveillance Network Europe, says the best solution is to raise the ship, something that victims' family groups have called for in the past but is considered a technical challenge and emotionally difficult - as most victims were trapped in the ship amid extremely chaotic final scenes.
Officials opted in 1994 in favor of encasing the hull in concrete, but went only as far as dropping tons of pebbles over the hull.
The decision not to raise the ship added to the inevitable conspiracy theories. More disturbingly, confirmed revelations emerged later that the Estonia was indeed used to transport non-explosive military equipment in the security vacuum of the early 1990s as Russian troops retreated from the area.
Vello Mäss, a marine archaeologist interviewed by ETV, says Finnish coast guard radar monitors the site.
Staff also stressed this was the case, adding that an amateur diver could perhaps "snap a picture of the Estonia" but would not have much time to do anything else before having to resurface.
The Western Finnish coast guard told ETV that the Estonia has been visited on three occasions - but in 2000 and 2001. One of those times was an expedition by German journalist Jutta Rabe and another time by a Polish divers' group.
Poland is a party to the Estonia Agreement 1995, with Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Denmark, Russia and the United Kingdom being the other signatories. The treaty says the site is protected under he principle of the sanctity of graves. But the wreck is in international waters, ETV said, and this may complicate enforcement.
Staff told ETV it would be a good idea to raise the ship. "I think it would be a good idea," he said. "It would put an end to all kinds of conspiracy theories. If it isn't done, the theories will be left hanging forever."
Estonian Parliament's Swedish-Estonian group member Valdo Randpere agreed for the same reason, while noting it would be a costly project.