Estonia Disaster Left 852 Dead
By James Donahue
The 509-foot-long cruise ferry Estonia was making a regular crossing on the Baltic Sea, from Tallinn,
Estonia to Stockholm, dealing with high winds and waves, when the lock on an automobile loading door failed, the door swung
open, and the ship flooded so fast it foundered, taking 852 souls to their death on September 28, 1994.
The disaster was marked as among the worst maritime disasters of the century and the deadliest shipwreck
disaster to have ever occurred on the Baltic Sea in peacetime.
The 14-year-old ship was heavily laden with 803 passengers, their vehicles, and a crew of another
186 when the disaster happened. Only 137 passengers and crew members survived. They were pulled from the sea by other vessels
and emergency helicopters, many of them suffering from hypothermia.
A major factor in the sinking was believed to have been a decision by the ship’s master, Captain
Arvo Andresson, to drive the ship at top speed into the high seas in an effort to keep the vessel on its scheduled time. This
consequently weakened with bow visor and vehicle ramp at the bow of the ferry, causing them to break off from the hull.
The officers on the bridge would not have seen the breaking away of the protective parts at the bow
because the bridge was set back from the bow and towered five decks above it. Everyone on the ship knew that something severe
had happened, however, because there had been several loud cracks and bangs just before the ferry began listing to port.
Researchers determined that Andresson slowed the ship's engines and gave an order to turn the vessel
to port. Without understanding what had happened at the gates to the auto deck, this appeared to have been the correct procedure
to follow since the storm was slamming the vessel from port and the ship was listing to port.
By turning the ship into the storm and taking the brunt of the waves from the bow, most sailors would
consider that the correct action. But researchers later determined that the turn literally sank the ship. With the front gates
gone, turning the ship into the high seas caused the automobile deck to flood. As the vessel settled by the bow, the seas
next began pouring into the passenger deck below the vehicle deck. The Estonia quickly listed harder to port and then turned
on its side, trapping over 600 passengers in their cabins. This all happened between 1 a.m. and 1:30 a.m. while most of the
passengers were asleep below.
In its 14 years on the high seas, the Estonia operated under four different names and had four different
owners. It was launched in 1980 as the Viking Sally. When sold in 1990 the ship was named Silja Star. Then under new owners
in 1991 the ferry was named Wasa King. When sold to Estline Marine in 1993, the ship received its final name, Estonia.
Estline carried passenger and automobile traffic between Stockholm, Sweden and Tallinn, Estonia.
The ship had the power to reach speeds of 21 knots. It was large enough to carry up to 2,000 passengers
and 460 cars.