Feature | MS Estonia disaster: Official version versus critique

The MS Estonia.
The MS Estonia. Source: ERR

The deadliest peacetime shipping disaster, not only in the Baltic but in all European waters, took place over 26 years ago now, on September 28 1994, when the Estonian-registered MS Estonia ferry sank en route to Stockholm carrying 989 people (803 of them passengers). While the official version was established a few years after the incident, questions continue to be asked - a phenomenon which has seen an upsurge following a documentary aired on Swedish TV last year.

ERR News caught up with four people with expert backgrounds but with differing views on what happened that night: Professor Mihkel Kõrgesaar of Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech), Margus Kurm, who headed a government committee looking at the Estonia in the mid-2000s, Mart Luik, journalist and former foreign ministry adviser, and Jaan Metsaveer, shipbuilding engineer and emeritus professor at TalTech, who sat on the original joint committee in the 1990s.

Together, our experts help fill in more gaps in the story.

Of the 989 people on board the MS Estonia that fateful night, 852 never made it. Only 95 bodies were found, while 501 Swedish citizens and 285 Estonians perished, along with the citizens of 15 other countries.

The final report from the investigation into the disaster, carried out by the International Commission for the Investigation of Shipwrecks, found a detached bow visor in turn pulled a structurally-connected ramp, causing water to enter the car deck and flood it, all during heavy seas.

The ship's bow visor was found about a mile west of the wreck, the investigation found.

However, many voices have questioned the official line, even before a recent Swedish-made documentary aired, displaying footage of the wreck's hull obtained in 2019 which clearly showed a large hold in the metalwork.

Official timeline of the disaster

First, a look at the time line of the known events on that fateful night 26 years ago.

- 7.15 p.m. on September 27, 1994, the Estonia departs Tallinn, for the overnight trip to Stockholm, schedule to arrive the next morning. The vessel leaves port with all four MAN diesel engines running. There was a southerly wind blowing, of 8-10 meters per second, visibility reported good.

-Midnight. Wind speeds have increased to 15-20 meters per second and wave heights are three to four meters, conditions which the captain of the Silja Europa, a ferry later involved in the rescue effort, described at the time as  "normally bad" for the time of year.

- Around 1.05 a.m. on September 28, several survivors, passengers and crew members, report hearing strange, by some descriptions "metallic", sounds.

- 1.15 a.m., visor detaches from the bow; the ramp soon sinks completely. Water floods into the car deck, compromising the MS Estonia's buoyancy very quickly. Ship almost immediately starts listing to starboard.

-1.22 a.m., first "Mayday" call issued, and second call soon after at 1.24 a.m. By that time, all four engines had stopped running.

-Vessel heels increasingly to starboard, and water begins to enter the accommodation deck.

-By 1.30 a.m. the ship has sunk. In the final phase, the list was at 90 degrees. The vessel disappeared from radar by 1.50.a.m. The first other vessel to reach the scene, the Mariella, another ferry, arrives a little before 2.15 a.m., while the incident is declared a full-scale emergency about 15 minutes later.

Official investigation

The official version of the incident and its events was written in up 1997 by the Joint Accident Investigation Commission of Estonia, Finland and Sweden, or JAIC.

As early as the first months following the accident, the JAIC investigation indicated that the shipwreck had been caused by bad weather conditions which caused the bow visor to detach.

Since then, many so-called conspiracy theories have revolved around the story.

 Due to the high number of fatalities, many of those close to the victims, as well as experts and others around the world have not been able to make peace with the official version.

Doubts about the official theory were largely, and still are, linked to the Swedish government's subsequent actions.

Estonia, Finland and Sweden, the three countries most heavily affected by the disaster, joined in signing a grave site peace agreement in 1995, wishing to strengthen the protection of the wreck, as the final resting place for the victims of the disaster, from any disruptive activities, including dives.

All nations were declared welcome to join the agreement, though many which have Baltic coastlines, including Germany, did not.

Shortly after the accident, the Swedish government said it wanted to encase the wreck in concrete, though ultimately sand and gravel was used.

Some victims' relatives also demanded that the wreck be raised, but the Swedish government refused to do so.

2020 documentary puts episode back into public eye

Swedish filmmaker Henrik Evertsson brought the Estonia disaster back into the spotlight, making a documentary about the episode including the dive robot footage taken in 2019 – an action which he and fellow film-maker Linus Andersson faced criminal charges over, and were only recently cleared from. The dive footage covered a large cross-section of speculation and theories related to the shipwreck.

The main find from the dive footage constituted two damaged  areas on the ferry's hull.

Screenshot from the recent documentary, showing the hole in the MS Estonia's starboard side. Source: ERR

Margus Kurm

Soon after the Evertsson documentary came to light, the head of an Estonian government investigation committee in the years 2005-2009, spoke up about the matter. Kurm also spoke to ERR News in a recent interview.

Kurm said his committee's task had been to investigate one theory that military equipment was being transported, a claim which was raised on a Swedish TV show by a former customs official who said that a week and two before the accident he was asked to carry out a mock customs control check.

Sweden then confirmed that military equipment was on board the MS Estonia. The committee formed in Estonia itself had to start investigating whether any of its own authorities were also involved in these transportations.

The government also doled out another task - to investigate whether there are any shortcomings in the official report, questions, which didn't have a clear answer.

Margus Kurm on ETV's "Pealtnägija". Source: ERR

Margus Kurm described the process thus: "The task was to find out whether the allegations made by the critics are justified or are purely speculation. I made it clear what these issues were. I had read the books by critics (Enno Tammer, Juta Rabe), and at the same time I worked through JAIC material; I read the report. The fact that there was an issue, became clear to me when I hadn't even got through half of it."

"They probably think that I have had no right to investigate the sinking, but only to investigate the shipwreck itself. This is legal nit-picking, however. In order to analyze a shipwreck report, it is also necessary to understand how the shipwreck itself came to be. I am a private person; the title 'investigator'  is given to me by journalists," Kurm says, in response to critics.

The main problem with the JAIC's report, Kurm says, is that they had not considered testimonies of the survivors and were later interrogated. The statements were referenced in a way that supported their version.

Kurm has interviewed several survivors down the years.

Henrik Sillaste, a member of the machine control room crew, is one of those who testified about the night in September 1994, Kurm says.F

Sillaste says: "Suddenly I felt a strong bang, followed by a second and soon a third bang. The noises were stronger than those caused by waves. After the third bang, I noticed that the ship was listing, as canisters on the floor began to roll around. The ramp was in a closed position. Water squeezed in around the sides of the ramp and ran down the walls, and not along the ramp. Water definitely wasn't running along the inside of the ramp. I didn't notice any openings on the sides of the ramp either. The upper part of the ramp was not visible either, because the ramp was higher than the deck."

Athletes Ain-Alar Juhanson and Anti Arrak, also on board, have also confirmed that they saw the ramp in a closed position.

"It was in a closed position and I didn't notice any large gaps or cracks at the edges," Juhanson said. Ain-Alar Juhanson has also described how he saw the water coming from the ship. "When I entered the corridor from my cabin, I saw water. The water squeezed out through the wall, from the starboard side and from about the height of half a meter. The pressure was not very strong."

Kurm said that this causes suspicion that a closed ramp wasn't mentioned in the report at all. "But there was nothing about it in the JAIC report. The obvious contradiction is that if the ramp was closed at 90 degrees, it is a key thing."

"As it is known that in the Mayday call given at around 1:25 a.m. and a crew member estimated the list at that time to be 20-30 degrees, the JAIC decided that the ramp opened up at 1:15 a.m. However, this ignored statements of a few dozen survivors, who claimed that a sharp heel occurred earlier than that, at at about 1 a.m. Anyone can ask how many of survivors said that a sharp list occurred at about 1.15 a.m. The answer to that is zero. There are some survivors who thought that the list occurred at 1.30 a.m., but this is clearly too late because at 1.30 a.m. the ship had already lost communication, and at 1.48 a.m., it sank."

Kurm says that the time-line was altered to make things fit the official explanation, rather than vice-versa.

Kurm continued: "Postponing the estimated start of the accident was necessary to match the water inflow calculations with the recording of the Mayday calls, which are one of the few objective pieces of evidence."

"If the JAIC had assumed that the ramp opened and the list started to appear at 1.00 a.m., then according to these calculations, the ship should have been sideways, i.e listing at 90 degrees, at 1.25 a.m., not the 20-30 degrees that the Mayday announcement (which is recorded – ed.) says," Kurm explained.

In summary, the major discrepancies in the report, Kurm pointed out, are that an absolute majority of the survivors who testified said that the sharp list occurred at about 1. a.m.; a Mayday call recorded at 1.25 a.m. tells the crew member that the list is 20-30 degrees; at 1.29 a.m. the last Mayday call is logged and recorded, which means that the crew member still had to be able to stand somewhere (the captain's bridge is an open space 27 meters long, which means that if the heel exceeds 45 degrees, there would be nowhere to be able to stand.).

Kurm added that the recorded timeline and list degrees reported in the Mayday call are the same as the data provided by the crew members. 

The Swedish government itself also ordered studies from scientists who say the official version is physically not possible.

The first question facing these experts was a) how the ship didn't capsize, and b) how the water managed to get below the car deck.

Margus Kurm again: "The JAIC did not explain the version sufficiently, and they have gone through the evidence very freely taking what suits them and leaving what doesn't."

"Comparing this information, these problems became clear and I came to the conclusion that it is all very problematic; the conclusion was that it is not possible to go further without investigating the wreck."

Official calculations and analysis indicate that so much water came from the fully open bow ramp onto the car deck that the ship heeled to 40 degrees in a few minutes.

As a result, the windows and portholes on Deck 4 were by that stage underwater, while the windows on the Deck 5 were being struck by storm waves. As a result, windows shattered, water entered the hull and the ship capsized.

Kurm has said that the cornerstone of the official version is the claim that the ramp opened completely, and that was the only opening from which water got into the ship, but there is no evidence to support this claim, he says.

As noted, Kurm claims that no survivor saw the ramp open, though there are five survivors who have said they saw that the ramp was closed.

 Mihkel Kõrgesaar, professor of shipbuilding at the TÜT Maritime Management Center, says he believes that the visor and the ramp still detached before the sinking and that the testimonies of the witnesses are different.

Kõrgesaar said: "Actually, the visor lies separately somewhere. I think it sheared off at some point. It is also possible that it detached later, but it is quite certain that the visor still came off first."

At the same time, Kõrgesaar would not be drawn on the precise time-frame of any ramp failure." The mechanics' comments are different, at first they saw water coming in, but it was one moment when they saw it, but how long this ramp lasts, I can't comment on that," he said.

The Estonian government, led by Andrus Ansip (Reform) at the time, did nothing with the report submitted by the committee.

Rein Lang, who was the Minister of Justice at the time, said that Margus Kurm had been named head of the committee at his proposal. "This committee had to find out if military equipment was transported on MS Estonia. The Committee was unable to find anything. Kurm informed the government. Kurm mapped the issues of the international report. The government considered it and didn't think it was necessary to investigate the causes of the shipwreck again," Lang explained.

Lang has previously said that Kurm did not constitute a legitimate investigator of the causes of the disaster. "Margus Kurm has never had a state mandate to investigate the causes of the sinking. If he has done so, it has been his private activity, not the performance of his duties. His recent public appearances have also been made as a private person and not as an investigator the causes of the shipwreck," Lang says.

Mart Luik

Mart Luik, adviser to former foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) watched the Evertsson documentary with a team of experts, including some footage which did not make it into the final cut as aired on the Discovery Channel.

Luik told ERR News that one still unexplained fact is that the bow visor is no longer attached to the vessel.

"The bow visor has even been raised; if I'm not mistaken, it was lifted out a few kilometers away from the wreck," Luik said.

Mart Luik Autor/allikas: Gergey Lukecha/ERR

"The theory of whether the bow visor was itself rammed laterally was discussed in the film. However, the answer ended up being in the negative, according to experts, because the bow visor is simply not heavy enough. The visor weighs about 50 tonnes, but this force had to be at least 500/600 tonnes of mass that pushed in from the outside. There are significantly more tonnes on the seabed as the ship sinks. "

Calculations of the two studies don't match

Meanwhile, Jaan Metsaveer, a shipbuilding engineer and emeritus professor at Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech), who also sat on the JAIC, said that official calculations show that the MS Estonia had a reserve buoyancy (the volume of a ship above the waterline, which can be made watertight, thus increasing the vessel's buoyancy – ed.) of 4,500 tonnes.

 This covers two meters above  the waterline, which can carry an additional weight of 4,500 tonnes. Thus, 4,500 tonnes of water flowing under the car deck was enough to sink the whole ship in any location.

However, it is also possible for a part of the ship to lose reserve buoyancy, for example, the stern sections. The result is that the stern sinks significantly deeper and the bow rises higher, so that 4,500 tonnes is above the water-line.

Margus Kurm says he does not agree with this estimation. "Swedish marine scientists have concluded with their calculations, simulations and model tests (done by Swedish state agency Vinnova) that the ship would not have sunk until its entire superstructure, and 83 percent of the hull, is filled with water. This means that 11,000 tonnes of water had to flow under the car deck, not the 4,500 tonnes referenced. "

Vinnova conducted the tests in 2008, by which time software used in simulations was better than that available in 1995.

"Don't these kinds of disagreements between scientists prove the need to gather as much evidence as possible, including investigating the wreck on the seabed?" Kurm asks.

Professor Mihkel Kõrgesaar agrees that the calculations made in 2008 are more likely to be accurate. At the same time, he said that in the same way, later calculations say that the ship ought to have stayed afloat, but as it didn't no one really knows how it actually came to sink.

Mihkel Kõrgesaar Autor/allikas: TalTech

"Let's say I can't comment on how that water got there. Most likely, the doors were open there, something broke, it has been talked about the windows breaking. The ship sank and water could enter the ship," commented Kõrgesaar.

Margus Kurm also noted that Metsaveer was a member of the JAIC, and this may also be the reason why he and his students have been the most active in defending the original version presented in the media, he says. "Apart from professor Jaan Metsaveer, no one has spent that much time convincing the public of the correctness of the official version. It would be very difficult to admit now that maybe the official version is not right. Other scientists, such as Kristjan Tabri and some others who have commented on this matter, are students of Metsaveer."

Hole and submarine theory

Holes located on the starboard side of the wreck's hull, particularly following the Evertsson documentary, have also been identified as possible causes of the sinking.

The holes seen in the documentary are thought to be caused by a collision with a large object. One theory has been a collision with a submarine, a theory also supported by Margus Kurm.

Another speculation has been an explosion somewhere inside the ship.

Mart Luik says he doesn't find either of these theories are probable, though he did say that further investigation is definitely needed.

Luik continues: "The hole's shape and what is visually visible does not indicate that it is an explosion, and it also indicates that it has been caused by an outside force. This theory of a collision with a submarine would mean that this object should have been sailing at an angle of 45 degrees, relative to the hull, and at a faster rate than the MS Estonia was at the time."

Auk Estonias. Autor/allikas: ERR

"This is not impossible, but equally it is not probable. The MS Estonia was sailing at quite a rapid speed, around 14 knots, which is a lot for a stormy sea. This can obviously only be specified by further technical investigation as to what caused this injury. One probable theory is that it involved the collision with the seabed when it sank. As the ship weighs 12,000 tonnes and if more water enters, ensuing pressure will speed up the process even further, this force is sufficient if there are large rocks on the seabed."

"Another important nuance is that the size of this hole, 4 meters long  by 1.2 meters wide, is not large enough for the ferry to have sunk, solely as a result of the breach," Luik added.

Mihkel Kõrgesaar also rejects the submarine theory. "A few weeks ago, we had a scientific afternoon round table on the subject of the seabed in the MS Estonia wreck's vicinity, where it was discussed what the bed might look like, and different scientists talked about their views. To my surprise, the seabed here, far from being smooth sand, is actually extremely uneven. It makes perfect sense to me that this (i.e. the hole(s) punched in the hull – ed.) could have happened on the seabed, once the wreck touched down. There is a mud upper layer, sediment, but there are also sharp rock outcrops underneath those mud layers. If you place a 12-tonne ship on an uneven surface, this type of damage will easily occur."

Kurm disputes this idea, however. "At least  research so far does not suggest that the seabed is rocky. On the contrary, the seabed under and around the shipwreck consists of soft clay."

In support of his statement, he brings out a report on underwater surveys carried out in December 1994, which says that the seabed in the area consists of "very soft mud and clay". The study concludes that "the bottom is characterized by a very weak layer of 5-30 meter thick clay".

Kurm adds that the vessel did not sink on its side, sideways, but wholly inverted.

"The ship sank funnels down," Kurm explained.

The documentary does nothing to change that, Mihkel Kõrgesaar continued.

"Could the ground have changed? I don't think the truth will be captured with a camera, which was used in the film. These sediments are still at the bottom," Kõrgesaar said.

Sweden's reaction raised suspicion

Another point of contention with Margus Kurm is the disappearance of footage from the original investigative dive.

Some of the original shots made by the Norwegian company, Rockwater, which filmed the wreck originally, have disappeared without a trace, but the Swedish government has not been very worried about this. "They made two originals, one went to the company and the other to the Swedish Maritime Administration. Rockwater has later said that they destroyed their original video and that no one knows what happened to the other original. Estonian and Finnish authorities say they don't know anything about the videos either," Kurm said.

Johan Franson, then head of the Swedish Maritime Administration, who led the operation, also says he knows nothing about the original videos. The Swedish government commissioned a Swedish laboratory to investigate the tapes made from the Estonia ferry and the study states that they never received the originals, I.e. some of the films are copies, spliced together. "The original films did not reach the state agency either, which is strange," Kurm says.

Meanwhile Mart Luik said that the Swedish and Finnish governments have been very reasonable and have had a very realistic attitude, while the need for further investigation is understood. " The obstacle is that the grave site peace agreement between the three countries, which was later joined by other states, also adopted a narrower law for the Estonia wreck according to which further dives are not allowed."

"Their law only allowed two dives. One was to prevent environmental pollution and for which reason the fuel was pumped out the wreck, and the other restriction was to create a tomb to encase the wreck of the Estonia, so that no one could access it.

"I do understand this idea, though with some reservations; it was the greatest tragedy during peacetime in the Baltic Sea, that no one could act reasonably in this situation. Apparently, the idea from ​​the Swedes was that this is how the peace of the grave is physically guaranteed, but it does not seem reasonable at a time when a formal investigation hasn't been done yet either."

Regarding the encasing, Professor Kõrgesaar said that the move was incomprehensible. "This was a totally incomprehensible reaction, one which doesn't make any sense. I have no idea what the reason might be. This reaction has fed the speculations as well."

What's next?

Mart Luik notes that Finland and Sweden are in the process of diplomatic negotiations at present, while Estonia has made its own proposals. An organizational body will be set up, and this commission will move forward step by step.

In parallel with this, the Estonian, Swedish and Finnish safety investigation authorities are carrying out a preliminary analysis to determine whether the shipwreck investigation should be reopened. Today, they have also decided that new dives are needed.

However, Margus Kurm is not too hopeful about any new investigation. At the same time, he says hopes that the truth will see the daylight. "I have hope that one day this wreck will be properly investigated and filmed and made public. And when it is done, we can see what follows. It doesn't automatically provide an answer to what caused all this."

The Estonian, Swedish and Finnish safety investigation authorities have now come to the conclusion that new dives must be organized in order to investigate the sinking of the Estonia, Swedish public broadcaster SVT announced, as also reported on ERR News.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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