Head of 1994 Rescue Operations: Despite Improved Safety, Theoretical Possibility of Large Shipping Accident Will Always Persist
Retired Commodore Raimo Tiilikainen, the Finnish official who led rescue operations 20 years ago at the site of the Estonia ferry disaster and who was in Tallinn for the commemorative events this weekend, told uudised.err.ee's Rain Kooli in an interview that an accident of that magnitude is still possible on the Baltic Sea.
What comes to mind first when you think of the September 28, 1994?
The first thing that comes to mind of course is that 12 hours before the accident I had gone on my last holiday, having put in my letter of resignation, and returned to Espoo. At 1 or 2 in the morning the telephone rang and I was told a ship called the Estonia was listing heavily.
I asked the dispatcher where the distress call came from, so I would be up to date. Then I hung up. At that point, it came to me what the Estonia was….a passenger ferry, with 1000 people on board! I went back to the phone, when it rang again. I picked it up and asked: "It sank?" "Yes!" came the reply.
I said, "I'm coming!" My wife warmed up a cup of tea as I was pulling on my clothes and then I sped off for Turku as fast as possible, 150 kilometres away.
The final investigation report refers to problems that caused the disaster - but thinking back on the rescue operation, was there anything that could have been done better, more effectively?
I don't know about better or more effectively, but since then much reduce equipment has been updated and there're many more personnel on duty - and also at the command centres, were back then there was low readiness in terms of human resources.
Naturally, if an Estonia-type disaster happened today, the response would be much more efficient. But we had had drills for accidents back then - including on the command level, where we all knew each other - so it can't really be said that anything went askew.
It the reason that it's hard to be ready for an accident in peacetime because it seems so unthinkable?
We really couldn't have expected that a passenger ferry would just sink so quickly. Our risk scenarios were more about fires aboard such a ship - which would have been quite catastrophic on such a ship, as the car deck is full of cars and they're full of fuel.
How should we view conspiracy theories [the passenger ferry was used to transport military equipment in the less regulated early 1990s - Ed.]. Do you think the conclusions of the final report were correct?
I think they were. The ship had a construction defect that meant that if the visor came loose, so would the watertight ramp. And when water gets on to the car deck in such high seas, the ship is done for.
The rescue operation was harrowing - you've said you weren't able to sleep for a long while afterwards.
You also displayed the frustration at the time, in front of TV cameras, that after a point, there were only bodies to rescue. How do you manage that situation psychologically?
You get some support from knowing that the rescue operation was launched according to plan, and when the first rescued people start arriving, that gives you strength to keep on going.
For me it's all very poignant because my father escaped from the armored ship Ilmarinen, which sank about 15 kilometres from the Estonia site back in the war [in 1941; 271 seamen perished and 132 were rescued].
If you consider that today both the ships and rescue preparedness are better, can you say with equanimity that it is not possible for such an accident to happen again on the Baltic?
I can't say nothing as big cannot happen again. There is so much east-west freight traffic on the Gulf of Finland, and pretty frequent ferries going north-south. A collision could happen anytime and that would be a serious situation.
Are the Baltic Sea countries ready to deal with such a accident in the present day?
Technical preparedness has been improving the whole time, but if we think about people in the water and a storm that is so bad that choppers are the only means of rescue, this is a very limited method. Loading people on to a bigger chopper that holds 25 people would take an hour or more. And transport to wherever they are going takes time.
So not everyone could be saved?
Not everyone can be saved. Other ships are also pretty marginal in terms of rescue capability, it is a long way to the water line, and the waves can be 8 meters high.
What can be done, we can't reduce ship traffic after all?
There had been technological progress - we have a ship traffic control system that warns of a collision risk. Coutnries communicate mud more. During the Estonia disaster, the communication was mainly between Finland and Sweden.
The Finnish media has in recent weeks reported that shipping companies gather information on hazardous stations on their ships but the information doesn't make it to the maritime administration level.
It's a problem. The companies worry for their reputation if they don't' want to report agencies of cases such a ship running aground. Actually the rescue center should be contacted right away as a precautionary measure.