MS Estonia bow visor fragments may show traces of exposure to extreme heat

The MS Estonia.
The MS Estonia. Source: ERR

A recent press conference claimed that pieces from the bow visor taken from the MS Estonia, which sank in September 1994 with the loss of 852 lives, show signs of a potential explosion. The fragments analyzed, which appear to have been subject to extreme temperatures, were not retrieved in any of the recent dives to the wreck, which lies in around 100 meters of water south of Finland's Turku archipelago, but had been kept in storage in Sweden.

At a Tuesday press conference, Swedish former MP Lars Angstrom referenced segments of the MS Estonia's bow visor which had been in storage in Karlskrona, in that country, and one of which was the subject of extensive analysis by metallurgist Ida Westermann, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Fokus Estonia research group, a Swedish organization headed by Angstrom claims that experts, including some from the Swedish police, recommended it approach the university instead of going to Swedish authorities.

The metal from the bow visor bore signs that it has been impacted by temperatures of at least 1,200C, suggesting an explosion.

Westermann told daily Postimees that: "One of the most interesting findings was that very different micro-structures were observed within a distance of just a few centimeters from one another."

"There are parts where the material has not been deformed or impacted," Westermann said, adding that traces of solidified material had been found in those zones where the metal had been impacted.

At the same time, this need not inconclusively prove an explosion happened. Seismograms of two Finnish seismic stations from the time of the MS Estonia's sinking, i.e from the evening of September 27 to the morning of September 28 do not show anything out of the ordinary, BNS reports.

Margus Kurm, who headed up the Joint Accident Investigation Commission (JAIC) investigation into the sinking in the mid-200s and is now leading a private investigation funded in part by the Postimees Group, said the new claims should be taken seriously.

Kurm said: "It would definitely be interesting to see a different group of researchers conduct a similar study; if they reach the same conclusion, there would be reason to carry out further studies."

Lars Angstrom also provided evidence at the press conference of the latest photographs of the MS Estonia's recovered bow visor, which is being stored at the Musko Naval Base, which shows damage which, he claims, is not mechanical in nature.

The only explanation we deem possible to have caused this type of damage is an explosion," Angstrom said.

However, other experts say that the damage represents slow plastic deformation, as opposed to the rapid damage an explosion might cause.

Tauri Roosipuu, who recently completed a master's thesis in the MS Estonia at Tallinn University of Technology (Taltech), says that the JAIC report itself mentions the possibility of an explosion, but concluded that the samples taken from the visor after the catastrophe did not contain any traces of explosive material.

Former members of JAIC said that the deformation sites on the visor are indicative of slow plastic deformation rather than rapid breakage, which would take place in case of an explosion.

Other factors are the weight of the bow visor, which Head of Postimees' research news Marek Strandberg comes to 55 tonnes, and if a piece of metal of that weight were to fall from a height of two to three meters, it may create an impact of over 500 tons.

"The energy released as a result of this impact is equal to that in 350 grams of explosive material. And there were several of these impacts," Strandberg said.

A sheared-off bow visor in heavy seas leading to ingress of water sufficient to compromise the MS Estonia's buoyancy is the official cause of the 1994 disaster.

Ida Westermann said that this is indicative of a great pressure and of metal having melted in the said area at a temperature of at least 1,200 degrees, and the changes appear to be consistent with the results of an explosion.

"I do not want to further speculate on what exactly happened," she said, adding that the said changes cannot occur in the process of ship construction or repairs.

"If this had been the case, the entire part would have been replaced," the researcher said.

Strandberg added that in order to draw correct conclusions from the damages caused by heat,  information is needed about if and how many times the bow area of the ferry, which was completed in Germany in 1980, has been repaired.

"If electric or gas-based heating had to be used to restore or repair its shape, this data is essential for drawing correct conclusions," he said.

Westermann said that her study only concerned a small detail of the entire bow visor. Two years ago, the scientist studied samples brought from the MS Estonia wreck by German journalist Jutta Rabe in 2000 but could not draw any conclusions based on the samples.

The details recovered by Rabe were also studied by the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing under the leadership of professor Dietmar Klingbeil. The institute concluded as a result of tests conducted with various types of explosives that an explosion would change the microstructure of the entire cross section of the metal plate used in the ferry visor. However, the institute only discovered damages within the depth of 0.4 millimeters below the surface of the plate, and thus ruled out the possibility of an explosion.

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.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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