Exhibition reawakens Estonia ghosts

Eleven years after 852 people, mostly Swedes, perished when the ferry Estonia sank on a stormy Baltic night, an exhibition in the National Maritime Museum in Stockholm brings back the pain and controversy which have haunted Sweden since the disaster.

Exhibition reawakens Estonia ghosts

The Estonia sank in the night from September 27 to 28, 1994, around 100 kilometres southwest of the Finnish coast as it was sailing the Baltic sea from Tallinn to Stockholm. Just 137 people survived.

“Eleven years on, it is still a very touchy subject,” exhibition curator Emma Having told AFP.

A chronology at the entrance immediately signals to the visitor the eerie speed with which the vessel disappeared. At 11:30 pm, it started to capsize. The orchestra went silent, dancers lost their balance and fell. At 0:50 am, the Estonia was gone, swallowed up by the waves.

The exhibition, which is to run until the autumn of 2006, takes the visitor back to what happened that fateful night, using objects that were fished out of the sea and recordings of radio contacts, and gives a rundown of how sea

rescue techniques have evolved since the accident.

One of those exhibits is a small grey alarm clock, its hands stuck at a few minutes after midnight.

“It was on my bedside table,” said Mikael Öun, a Swedish survivor who is now 45 and who was woken up by the ferry’s abrupt movements. “It stopped when it fell on the floor,” he told AFP.

Öun put it in its pocket and went outside onto deck, where he was swept away by a wave, before managing to climb onto a life raft.

He held on to his alarm clock throughout the rescue, and then donated it to the Maritime museum “as additional proof” for the time of the tragedy.

Öun said he was very pleased with the exhibition, saying it was “important that people know what happened”.

But what exactly happened is not yet entirely clear, and the Stockholm exhibition tries to convey that the last word has not been spoken about the sinking, said Emma Having.

In 1997, a joint Swedish, Finnish and Estonian enquiry committee concluded that the catastrophe was due to a forward ramp not having been properly secured, resulting in the car deck being flooded by the strong waves.

But following criticism of the report’s shortcomings by survivors, families of victims and experts, the Swedish government in March of this year decided to commission a new probe of the disaster.

“I followed the report, but I also tell visitors that some parts of it have been severely criticized and others are missing,” she told AFP.

Lasse Johnsen, a member of Estonia action group SEA who lost his daughter in the tragedy, said he regretted that the exhibition failed to give other versions of the tragedy except the official one.

“Experts have said that the report is worthless,” he said.

The Estonian government recently set up a commission to investigate reports that radar and listening equipment left behind in the Baltic states by departing Soviet forces had been seized by Swedish intelligence and secretly taken to Sweden aboard the Estonia in the weeks preceding the calamity.

The Swedish armed forces confirmed that the Estonia had been used to transport military equipment on September 14 and 20, 1994, but denied that any equipment could have been on board when the ship sank.

Sophie Mongalvy (AFP)


Eerie reminder of Baltic maritime disaster washes ashore

More than two decades after the sinking of MS Estonia, which claimed the lives of 852 people, a life buoy believed to be from the shipwreck has been found.

Eerie reminder of Baltic maritime disaster washes ashore
The life buoy from Estonia. Photo: Tvärminne Zoological Station

The MS Estonia sank on September 28th 1994 on a crossing from Tallinn to Stockholm, carrying 989 people on board: 803 passengers and 186 crew. The vast majority died in the disaster, 501 of whom were Swedish.

What appears to be a sad reminder of the tragedy washed ashore on an island last weekend, when a team from Finland's forestry administration Metsähallitus/Forststyrelsen were out eradicating invasive rose bushes in the Finnish archipelago. They found the life buoy, believed to be from the shipwreck, south of Jussarö.

“It is likely that this styrofoam buoy has been crushed by the high pressure at 80m depth, where the wreck lies, and then returned to the surface 23 years later. An eerie reminder from the past,” wrote the Tvärminne Zoological Station, which published a picture of the life buoy on Facebook.

The buoy was found more than 100 kilometres from where the MS Estonia sank in one of the Baltics' worst peacetime disasters.

The bow doors salvaged from the sea in November 1994. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

An international probe in 1997 blamed faulty bow doors which gave way in a storm, but there have also been numerous claims from relatives, shipping experts and politicians that the ferry sank after an explosion caused by military equipment being transported on board.

The majority of the victims were Swedish and pressure was heaped on the Swedish government to raise the MS Estonia to recover the bodies and try to establish exactly what happened. However, those hopes were destroyed when the decision was taken to leave the vessel where it was and let the victims be buried at sea.

To ensure the site would not be tampered with the ship was covered in thousands of tonnes of gravel and a protection order was taken out. Many of the families affected by the tragedy still hold out hope there will be a fresh inquiry and that the ship will be raised, while others believe it should be preserved as a mass grave.