Estonia ferry disaster inquiry backs finding bow door was to blame

Preliminary findings appear to reject claims blast or collision may have caused deadly sinking in 1994

The 1994 Estonia ferry disaster that claimed the lives of 852 people was caused by a faulty bow door rather than by a collision or explosion, according to the preliminary findings of an intergovernmental investigation.

Estonian, Finnish and Swedish investigators concluded (pdf) on Monday that Europe’s worst peacetime maritime disaster since the second world war happened after the roll-on, roll-off ferry’s bow shield was wrenched off in heavy seas.

The findings reinforce the conclusions of the original 1997 inquiry and appear to dismiss doubts raised by a 2020 documentary that discovered a gaping four-metre hole in the hull and suggested the vessel may have sunk due to a blast or collision.

The latest investigation, launched in 2021 after the three governments pledged to “assess the new information” in the documentary, found that the Estonia-flagged vessel should never have been certified as seaworthy for the Tallin-Stockholm route.

If a proper inspection of the Estonia’s bow had been carried out before it was launched, “the flaws of the visor construction could have been discovered, and the accident would probably not have occurred,” the report said.

Rebutting the views of experts who told the documentary’s makers that only a “massive external force” could have caused the shield to fail, the investigators said there was no evidence of “an explosion in the bow area” or “a collision with a vessel or a floating object”.

The hole in the hull was most likely caused by the vessel hitting the seabed, Rene Arikas, the director of the Estonian Safety Investigation Bureau, told a press conference in Tallinn, noting that its shape matched that of a rocky outcrop on the seafloor.

“We do know that when she sank, she didn’t have bow visor,” said Risto Haimila, the chief marine safety investigator at the Finnish Safety Investigation Authority. “But so far we have not found any damage [before sinking] other than in the bow area.”

Officials discuss the findings at a press conference in Tallinn.
Officials discuss the findings at a press conference in Tallinn. Photograph: Raul Mee/Rex/Shutterstock

The Estonia was carrying 803 passengers, most of them Swedish, and 186 crew, most of them Estonian, when it set sail from Tallinn at 6.30pm on 27 September 1994 into a force 8 wind – rough, but not especially dangerous conditions for the Baltic.

At about 1.15am the ship’s visor lifted, its bow doors opened and water poured in. Survivors described seawater pouring through cabin windows, ceilings and doors. At 1.50am the ship sank, stern first, about 25 miles south-east of the Finnish island of Utö.

There were 138 people rescued, one of whom died in hospital. Most of those who died drowned, although a third of the 300-odd who reached the outer decks succumbed to hypothermia. Only 93 bodies were recovered, the last of them 18 months later.

Before the final results of the inquiry are announced, the investigators are due to raise the ferry’s bow ramp to fully examine the damage, take samples from the hull area, survey the inside of the ship, and conduct interviews with the survivors.

Survivors and relatives of those who died have battled for a fuller investigation in the face of official reluctance to reconsider. Two Swedes, including the documentary’s director, have been found guilty of disturbing the wreck.

The Estonia’s final resting place was declared off-limits to all by Sweden, Estonia and Finland in 1995, although laws banning dives to the site were amended in 2021 to allow the wreck to be re-examined after the documentary’s release.


Jon Henley Europe correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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