Sweden pays tribute to Estonia disaster victims

Patrick Reilly
Patrick Reilly - [email protected]
Sweden pays tribute to Estonia disaster victims
The doomed MS Estonia ferry. File photo: TT

Two decades on from the catastrophic sinking of the MS Estonia, which claimed the lives of 501 Swedes, the nation has paid tribute to the victims amid calls for a fresh inquiry into the tragedy.


On the morning of September 28th 1994 the Swedish public awoke to horrifying images from the Baltic sea of people gripping for life in the icy cold water. 

In the early hours of the morning the cruise ferry MS Estonia had sank, with the loss of 852 lives. Only 137 people managed to survive.

The disaster unfolded over the course of an hour after strong waves ripped off the 54 tonne bow visor at the front of the ship. Water flooded into the car decks and capsized the vessel, forcing a scramble for life as panic ensued for the nearly 1000 people onboard.

Passengers were aware something was not right just after the stroke of midnight when they heard a loud bang. The noise, which some described as sounding like an explosion, would later form the basis of several conspiracy theories.

"A big wave struck which forced everything in the bar to fall down and be crushed. We said as a joke that it was like Titanic and that they would soon start offering free champagne and begin playing music on the decks," Swedish survivor Kent Härstedt said about the initial impact, in a recent documentary about the tragedy for the Discovery channel.

In Pictures: MS Estonia disaster 

The bow visor (pictured below after it was recovered) was later found to have been poorly welded and not properly maintained. To make matters worse the bridge were unable to see the bow so they didn't react until it was too late. Alarms were not sounded until five minutes after the ship began listing.

Human error was also to blame as the ship had been travelling too fast in order to make up time. The MS Estonia was an hour behind schedule and was due to arrive in Stockholm the following day after setting sail from Tallinn.

Officers were later criticized in an official report for panicking and sending out muddled radio messages to nearby vessels. By the time help arrived the MS Estonia had sank to the bottom of the sea off the Finnish coast - where it remains to this day.

Those who survived remain haunted by the experience which is deeply ingrained on the Swedish psyche.

Survivors recalled how some passengers, inside the ship, did not attempt to save their lives and stood motionless, paralysed by shock, as hundreds tried to get onto the outer decks.

Out on decks there was another obstacle to survival - looters. Numerous witnesses reported that they had their personal items, like watches and goldchains, stolen by thieves. Some even had their lifejackets taken off them.

Water flowed into the MS Estonia at the rate of 20 tonnes a second. Within 40 minutes it had sank.

Only 137 people managed to survive. A staggering 97 percent of female passengers perished. Nobody under the age of 12 made it out alive.

A total of 94 bodies were recovered. It's estimated that 650 people remain buried inside the MS Estonia - an issue which continues to evoke strong feelings from affected families.

Following the disaster an inquiry was demanded. 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.

Pressure was heaped on the Swedish government to raise the MS Estonia to recover the bodies and try and establish exactly what happened.

"The politicians said they would do all that that could be done and we took that as a promise," Monica Köpsén (pictured below), who lost her daughter Agneta on the MS Estonia, told the TT news agency.

However, those hopes were destroyed when the decision was taken to leave the vessel where it was. Costs and respecting the dead were cited as reasons for the decision, which Köpsén said left her feeling "hateful" towards the powers that be.

To ensure the site wouldn't be tampered with the ship was covered in thousands of tonnes of gravel and a protection order was taken out. Dives towards the vessel are illegal although Swedish media has reported there have been attempts to interfere with the MS Estonia.

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. Others though believe it should be preserved as a mass grave.

On Sunday, exactly 20 years since the disaster, King Carl Gustav layed a wreath at the Estonia monument in Stockholm. Similar events have taken place across the country to mark the anniversary.  


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