The 1994 Estonian ferry disaster that claimed the lives of 852 people was caused by a faulty bow door, not a collision or explosion, according to preliminary findings of an intergovernmental inquiry.
Estonian, Finnish and Swedish investigators concluded Monday (pdf) that Europe’s worst peacetime maritime disaster since World War II occurred after the ferry’s bow shield was torn off in heavy seas.
The findings confirm the conclusions of the original 1997 investigation and appear to dispel doubts raised by a 2020 documentary that revealed a gaping four-metre hole in the hull and suggested the ship may have sunk due to an explosion or collision.
The latest investigation, launched in 2021 after the three governments pledged to “assess new information” in the documentary, found that the Estonian-flagged ship should never have been certified as seaworthy for the Tallinn-Stockholm route.
Had a proper inspection of the Estonian port been carried out before it was launched, “flaws in the visor’s construction could have been discovered, and the accident probably would not have occurred,” the report said.
Refuting the views of experts who told the documentary’s authors 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 ship or floating object”.
The hole in the hull was most likely caused by the ship hitting the seabed, Rene Arikas, director of Estonia’s Bureau of Security Investigations, said at a news conference in Tallinn, noting that its shape matched a rocky outcrop on the seabed.
“We know that when she sank, she didn’t have a bow visor,” said Risto Haimila, chief maritime safety investigator at the Finnish Safety Investigation Directorate. “But so far we haven’t found any damage.” [before sinking] except in the bow area”.
Estonia was carrying 803 passengers, most of them Swedish, and 186 crew members, most of them Estonian, when she set sail from Tallinn at 18:30 on 27 September 1994 in wind force 8 – rough but not particularly dangerous conditions for the Baltic.
Around 1:15 a.m. the ship’s visor rose, its bow door opened and water poured in. Survivors described seawater pouring through windows, ceilings and cabin doors. At 1:50 a.m. the ship sank, stern first, about 25 miles southeast of the Finnish island of Uto.
138 people were rescued, one of whom died in hospital. Most of the dead drowned, although a third of the 300 or so who reached the outer decks succumbed to hypothermia. Only 93 bodies were found, the last of them 18 months later.
Before releasing the final results of the investigation, investigators need to raise the bow ramp of the ferry to fully examine the damage, take samples from the hull area, examine the interior of the ship and conduct interviews with survivors.
Survivors and relatives of those killed have fought for a fuller investigation, in the face of officials’ reluctance to reconsider. Two Swedes, including the director of the documentary, were found guilty of disturbing the wreckage.
Sweden, Estonia and Finland declared Estonia’s final resting place off-limits to all in 1995, although laws banning diving at the site were changed in 2021 to allow re-examination of the wreck following the release of the documentary.