Photos: MS Estonia bow ramp raised

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The bow ramp of the MS Estonia wreck has been recovered from the Baltic seabed and is to be brought to Estonia today, Tuesday, the Estonian Safety Investigation Bureau (OJK), overseeing a recent investigation at the site, reports.

The bow vehicle ramp (see gallery above) is a critical component in understanding exactly what happened during the MS Estonia disaster. The ferry sank in rough seas in the small hours of September 28, 1994, with the loss of 852 lives.

The ramp is to be brought to the South Harbor at the Port of Paldiski, around 50km West of Tallinn, the OJK says.

This concludes a survey which began last Thursday and was led by the OJK and its Swedish counterpart, the SHK, and was the first dive at the wreck site since 2021.

Sailing under the Norwegian flag, the Viking Reach, a survey ship, left the site, due South of the Turku archipelago, before 5 a.m. this morning, Estonian time, and is due to arrive between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. today, Thursday, July 25. 

Upon arrival, the bow ramp will be conveyed from the vessel, to the shore, at Paldiski South Harbor.

During the course of the past few days' work, bedrock and fouling samples were acquired from near a significant hole in the starboard side of the hull.

Cut-out pieces of the port side plating, extricated by divers in late 1994 in order to examine the interior of the wreck and left in situ, were also recovered. 

A steel sample from the damaged starboard side of the ferry's hull was also obtained, as was cabin window glass and seal.

The latest investigation made use of dive robots (ROVs) and other tech not available in 1994; human divers were not deployed.

The work went on round-the-clock, in shifts, starting from the moment the Viking Reach arrived at the wreck site, shortly after midnight last Thursday.

The wreck lies in around 80m of water.

The Estonia's car deck, including visor and ramp control panel, located next to the car deck entrance, was inspected via an ROV, while the hole, estimated at around 40m in length, was inspected both from the outside and the inside, using the ROV.

The discovery of this large rupture, seen in footage obtained in 2020 which later formed the basis of a Discovery Channel documentary, prompted renewed speculation on the causes of the disaster, and whether this hole was caused when the stricken ship hit the bedrock, or before or after this event.

The official version of events is that the bow visor sheared off in heavy seas, allowing water to gush in around the (raised) vehicle ramp, thus compromising the vessel's buoyancy.

The vehicle ramp had subsequently detached from the main hull and was found to be lying on the seabed. It is this item which is being taken to Paldiski.

The bow visor itself was retrieved in the aftermath of the sinking.

The combined OJK/SHK investigation took place under the supervision of Finnish authorities, while a Norwegian private contractor, Reach Subsea, had been awarded the tender for the bulk of the work.

Two survivors of the disaster, from each of the two countries most affected in terms of lives lost, Ants Madar (Estonia) and Urban Lambertson (Sweden) were also aboard the Viking Reach, as was ERR journalist Dmitri Fedotkin.

 The OJK says the bow ramp is initially to be stored in a privately-owned warehouse in Raasiku Rural Municipality, Harju County, just outside Tallinn, with a view to a suitable more permanent location to be found in the future.

This location will be under the auspices of the Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications.

OJK chief: Operation went very well

Märt Ots, head of the OJK, told ERR early Tuesday morning that: "The operation went well, and today, at exactly three o'clock in the morning, Estonian, time we managed to lift the Estonia ferry's ramp."

"With that, we can say that the maritime work has really very successful, 120 percent so. We were in fact able to carry out more than we had planned. This ramp is vital for us in successfully carrying out the investigations into what happened with the Estonia," Ots went on.

Tauri Roosipuu, the OJK's lead expert on board the Viking Reach, said dredging work had gone on all day Monday, to facilitate bringing the ramp up to the surface, while a bit before midnight, the securing process began, ahead of safely lifting the time.

This task also concluded the investigation.

Mart Ots said: "Naturally, this is a very difficult moment emotionally, because it this was certainly a major disaster, and a very difficult moment for many people, but I hope that our investigation will provide answers and finally obtain some closure on this matter."

No plans to display ramp at Maritime Museum

While the ramp will be subject to scrutiny once it is on terra firma, there are no plans for its final home to be at the National Maritime Museum (Meremuuseum) in Tallinn, the museum's director says.

Urmas Dresen, director of the Maritime Museum, told ERR Tuesday that there were no plans as things stand for the ramp to be on display there, while he was unable to say whether this could change any time in the future.

The MS Estonia sinking was the largest maritime disaster during peacetime and involving a European vessel, after the Titanic disaster of 1912.

Ten key facts about the MS Estonia

- Laid down in 1980 at the Meyer Werft shipyard in Germany.

- The vessel's previous names were: The Viking Sally (1980-1990), the Silja Star (1990-1991) and the Wasa King.

- The MS Estonia started regular traffic under the Estonian flag on February 2, 1993, plying the Tallinn-Stockholm line.

- On the night of the disaster, the ferry's crew worked in two shifts, and the captains were Arvo Andresson and Avo Piht.

- The Estonia sank on September 28, 1994 from shortly before 1 a.m. to just after 2 a.m.. Of the 989 on board, 137 survived. 852 people perished in the disaster, while only 95 of the dead were found.

- The wreck lies at a depth of around 70-80 meters.

- The bow visor was found about one nautical mile west of the wreck and was raised to the surface in November 1994, being taken to Hanko, Finland, in order to investigate the causes of the tragedy.

- In 1999, an international committee investigating the disaster handed over this visor to the Swedish Maritime Museum, and it was taken to the Swedish port of Södertäljethen in 2002 to the Swedish naval base on the island of Muskö.

- According to the international committee's final report, the bow visor, which sheared off in stormy conditions, pulled the structurally connected ramp with it, thus causing water to penetrate the vehicle deck.

- According to a documentary about the wreck of the Estonia which aired on September 28, 2020, a 40m long and up to 1.2 m wide rupture was found in the MS Estonia's starboard side. Until that time, this hole had been partly obscured by the seabed. Kristjan Tabri, a researcher at the Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech), who has studied maritime incidents for over 15 years, stated that this gash was formed when the stricken vessel struck the seabed, since, taking into consideration the vessel's mass (around 5,598 tonnes (gross) plus a deadweight tonnage of 3,006 tonnes), any irregularities in the seabed would be sufficient to cause a rupture of these dimensions. The seabed rock sample taken by the latest expedition is thought to consist of granite, though this has yet to be confirmed.

Editor's note: This article was updated to include quotes from Mart Ots and Tauri Roosipuu, and 10 key facts about the Estonia.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mait Ots, Urmet Kook

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