Exhibition reawakens Estonia ghosts

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.

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)