AK: New MS Estonia investigation commences with memorial service at sea

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Friday's memorial service at sea. Source: ERR

The initial ten-day on-site segment of a new investigation into the sinking of the MS Estonia ferry began this week, with a memorial service held on an Estonian police vessel at the site where the ferry went down in heavy seas in the small hours of September 28 1994. The preliminary work will look at a series of holes spotted in the wreck's hull, which came to light in the making of a recent documentary.

The present work will last for 10 days and is a preliminary to the most important surveys to take place next spring, at a time when seabed visibility is at its best.

No unauthorized vessels are welcome in the vicinity, BNS reports. The site was a protected grave in any case, though this was sometimes violated by unofficial diving or sightseeing boat trips, including the very expedition whose subsequent footage has been a factor in the new investigation.

The preliminary studies, carried out by Estonian and Swedish safety investigation authorities, universities, geologists and other experts, will assess and document the position of the sunken vessel, as well as conditions on the surrounding seabed.

The preliminary studies will be conducted in cooperation between Estonian and Swedish safety investigation authorities, geology experts and universities.

Key questions needing answering also include why the vessel sank to the seabed – the water depth in that part of the Baltic is in the region of 100 meters – so rapidly, or, given under the soft seabed lies a rocky surface, was the hull ruptured by the impact on this rock.

Technological advances since the last investigation in the 2000s may also shed more light on the ship's fate.

"We are going into this with new information about these holes, and we have to be able to validate or to discharge the previous investigation," Swedish investigator Jonas Bäckstrand told AK.

The initial dives, which will include the use of remotely controlled devices, will also attempt to solve a mystery which the recent documentary highlighted, namely the presence of several substantial holes in the MS Estonia's hull.

Jonas Bäckstrand told AK these questions included: "How and when these holes in the starboard side occurred – did they occur before the accident, or at the accident … or afterwards? We want to try to straighten out as many question marks as we can, but of course there will still be question marks."

One difference between the two countries' – Estonia and Sweden – approaches to the investigation, AK reported, lies in the latter's inclusion of a victim's relative alongside experts.

Raivo Hellerma, head of Memento Mare, an Estonian memorial association representing relatives of victims, told AK that: "The Swedish side still sent a very brave representative of relatives, but who unfortunately is not an expert in this field."

The work is also complicated by the 300,000 cubic meters of sand and gravel distributed over the hull in preparation for a planned encasement in concrete, a project which was abandoned and which conspiracy theorists suggested meant authorities had something to hide.

Ultimately, Raivo Hellerma noted, the fact that the investigation has been started at all means that it is a worthwhile endeavor.

An Estonian icebreaker, EVA 316, and Swedish research vessel Electra are the two boats performing the studies, BNS reports; Finnish authorities have issued a navigation warning to ward off other vessels entering the area, while a Finnish patrol vessel will also be providing security.

Friday at noon saw a memorial service held on the deck of the Estonian Police and Border Guard Board vessel the Kindral Kurvits, with clergy from Estonia, Finland, Sweden and Latvia presiding.

Bad weather conditions forced the work to stop Friday evening, BNS reports, but conditions are suitable for it to recommence Saturday.

Equipment was tested and calibrated Friday, while the visibility and oxygen content of seawater were measured.

The wreck was also surveyed using a fan sonar, a device measuring the direction and speed of currents was lowered to the seabed, and the processing of the collected data began, according to BNS.

The MS Estonia sank in the small hours of September 28, 1994, while en route from Tallinn to Stockholm. The sinking is the largest maritime disaster in peacetime in the Baltic Sea, killing 852 people from 17 countries, and second-largest peacetime maritime disaster ever, so far as European vessels go, after the Titanic.

The shipwreck, which lies in about 100 meters of water south of the Turku archipelago, was investigated by a joint committee formed by the governments of Estonia, Finland and Sweden between 1994 and 1997 and by a government commission headed by the Public Prosecutor's Office in 2005-2009.  

In 2020, the 26th anniversary of the ferry's sinking saw a TV documentary aired on Swedish public broadcasting which showed footage of what looked like a large hole in the hull of the wreck. The footage had been obtained in violation of an international agreement involving several countries in the region, which maintains the site as a grave and one which should not be disturbed.

The documentary's maker, a Swedish national reportedly resident in Oslo, Norway, may face a prison sentence over the border in his native country after being charged with desecrating the ferry's resting place during the making of the movie in summer 2019.

The current study is due to recommence next spring once the initial 10-day work is over, and will last till autumn next year.

This article was updated to include details of the progress of Friday and Saturday's work.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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