Estonia remembered

Several hundred people gathered in Stockholm's Djurgården on Tuesday to mark the tenth anniversary of the Estonia disaster. Of the 989 people on the overnight voyage from Tallinn to Stockholm, 852 died when fierce waves ripped off the bow door and the ship capsized off the Finnish coast.

King Carl Gustav, Queen Silvia and Prime Minister Göran Persson were among the dignitaries at the ceremony at the Estonia Monument in the grounds of Galärvarv Church, along with many survivors and relatives of victims of the worst maritime disaster since the second world war.

“Many who had gathered in a chilly and windy but nevertheless sunny Djurgården thought that it was a beautiful, moving and dignified ceremony honouring the memory of those who died,” wrote Dagens Nyheter.

Speaking at the event, Björn von Sydow, the Speaker of the Riksdag, summed up the emotional hold which the disaster still has over many Swedes.

“Some of you sitting here have perhaps felt relief to still be alive. Others perhaps have a feeling of guilt about being one of the survivors,” he said, in a speech which Svenska Dagbladet described as being “skilfully balanced”.

“There are voices calling for a new investigation. We must respect the sorrow and fury that some of them feel. But we must also respect those who feel that they have laid the whole thing behind them.”

The actor Marie Göranzon read extracts of works by Pär Lagerkvist, Karin Boye and Stig Dagerman, and members of the army choir and children from Adolf Fredrik Music School sang. The King laid a wreath at the foot of a granite wall bearing the names of those who perished.

Many of the papers revisited the shock that Sweden experienced as the country awoke on the morning of 29th September 1994. Anders Hellberg, who reported on the disaster for DN, told Stockholm City that he clearly remembers how he felt as the news came in.

“You couldn’t believe that it was true,” he said. “A city-to-city ferry in the Baltic Sea doesn’t capsize. It was completely unthinkable.”

But those views, held by the thousands of people who travelled the route every week, did not take into account the factors which, according to the inquiry into the accident, led to the sinking.

The ferry was ploughing through waves up to six metres high which, along with the boat’s excessive speed in the conditions, put so much pressure on the bow door that it was ripped off and water flooded into the vehicle deck. Alarms did not sound until five minutes after the ship began listing and officers did not respond to the unusual noises from the bow. Within 40 minutes the ship sank.

The shipmakers’ own report raised serious doubts about the seaworthiness of the boat, saying that the bow door had been leaking for weeks – and had only been plugged by old mattresses – and was out of alignment.

Although around 300 people managed to get onto the outer decks, faulty and poorly-designed safety equipment and treacherous conditions meant that only 137 survived until the rescue ships and helicopters arrived. 551 of the victims were Swedish and the other 301 came from 17 different countries.

All of the officers on the bridge perished, adding to the lack of real information of what happened. Many considered the results of the inquiry to be unsatisfactory and somewhat discredited by the resignation of the chairman and two Swedish investigators – one of whom was accused of lying in connection with the matter.

This, combined with the sheer shock felt by so many, has in turn led to a number of conspiracy theories around the disaster. According to DN, most of the ideas centre around a bang which many of the survivors reported hearing shortly before the boat sank.

One idea is that the Russian mafia was transporting a consignment of drugs – or 40 tonnes of cobalt, say others – in two lorries. They heard that the Swedish customs was planning a raid in Stockholm and tried to dump the lorries.

Another suggestion, was that the ‘explosion’ was the boat being hit by a torpedo from a Russian submarine, either accidentally or because it was actually weapons technology on the lorries being transported to the USA. A third idea is that the damage was caused by a collision with a Russian submarine.

While all of these ideas have been dismissed by officials in Sweden, Estonia and Finland, the anniversary of the disaster saw renewed calls for a new independent investigation.

SvD reported that around 50 demonstrators marched from Norrmalmstorg, in the centre of Stockholm, to the ceremony. Among them was Lennart Berglund, chairman of the foundation for the victims of Estonia, who described the march as “a good way to honour the dead and to push forward with dignity our demands for a new investigation”.

Sources: Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet, Expressen, Aftonbladet, Stockholm City