After initial reports that no major findings had arisen from a new investigation into the 1994 sinking of the MS Estonia ferry, diving work has revealed that the vessel's vehicle ramp now lies in a fully-open position, whereas it had previously been reported to have been in a closed position.
Head of the Estonian Safety Investigation Bureau Rene Arikas said that: "The bow ramp is lying on the starboard side, resting partly against the hull."
"The inside of the car deck is visible, and many different debris items on the car deck roof can be seen," Arikas, speaking via video link to daily Postimees (link in Estonian) went on.
Previous findings were that vehicle ramp was closed
This goes somewhat against previous findings, that the bow ramp was only partly open and the vehicle deck was only visible through a small gap.
"We can see today that there is no bow ramp in front [of the car deck] and we have a fully open entrance to the car deck."
The official explanation for the cause of the disaster, which took place in heavy seas in the small hours of September 28 1994 at a cost of 852 lives, is a sheared-off bow visor, which allowed seawater to enter the vehicle deck and compromise the vessel's buoyancy. The actual vehicle ramp as noted had previously thought to have been in a raised position.
Arikas could not speculate what had caused the bow ramp to lower, nor whether this had happened subsequent to the sinking.
He said: "As of today, we are only able to find that the bow ramp is not attached to its hinges, and is lying on the starboard side of the ship, supported in part by the hull."
New investigation nearly a week old
The findings came on day six of a preliminary investigation conducted by a joint Estonian-Swedish team and in part prompted by a 2020 documentary which found large holes in the vessel's hull, prompting speculation over whether these had been related to the sinking.
The main investigation will continue next spring.
Arikas also stated the MS Estonia's propeller blades and rudder blades are intact.
He said: "The propeller blades are in the 'zero' position. Both rudder blades are also undamaged. Openings cut by divers can be seen in different places.
"The stern ramps are in the closed position, and the ship's stabilizers are not present; perhaps they have been drawn into the hull," he went on.
"To the north of the wreck, i.e. on the right-hand side, lies a long trench five to seven meters wide. There is sand at the bottom of this pit, and also large and small stones in places. The wall of this trench is relatively steep, presumably consisting of a clay-moraine mixture," he added.
Various ruptures and damage
A mixture of sand and gravel had been poured over the wreck in preparation for encasement in concrete as a permanent grave site, but this project was not completed.
As to holes in the hull, Arikas noted at least one on the starboard side, passing downwards from the first deck (the MS Estonia lies in an upside-down attitude, i.e. with the deck almost face-down into the seabed – ed.).
The exact dimensions of this rupture cannot yet be gauged, due to being partly obscured by the seabed.
Other deformations and damage can be seen, he added.
Previous investigation chief: Ramp being in down-position hard to believe
Margus Kurm, who headed up the last Estonian-led investigation 2005-2009, says that the ramp had been a closed position in 1994 when it sank, according to the International Commission on the Investigation of Shipwrecks (JAIC) final report, and following a 2000 documentary by German journalist Jutta Rabe.
This meant, he said, that it is hard to believe that the ramp has since then fallen down and is now lying against the wreck, he told evening paper Õhtuleht (link in Estonian), adding that his initial reaction was that the ramp had subsequently been removed.
The current investigation is making use of 3D sonar, dive robots and other equipment.
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.
Editor: Andrew Whyte