A Contemporary Disaster - The Estonia


By James Donahue


During the 14 years it sailed the seas, the Swedish car-ferry Estonian bore four different names, was owned by even more different shipping companies, and suffered numerous mishaps prior to the disaster on September 28, 1994 that claimed 852 lives.


Launched in 1980 as the Finnish ship Viking Sally, the vessel grounded at Turku in 1982, was nearly run ashore because of propeller damage at the island of Yxla in Stockholm archipelago in 1983, went on the rocks at Hjulgrund in 1984, suffered propeller damage in 1985, and collided with a fishing boat in fog near Mariehamn in 1989.


Under new owners, the ship was briefly named the Silja Star in 1990, then was renamed Wasa King, operating under the Wasa Line, the following year.


She became the Estonia in 1992, after being purchased by the Estonian Shipping Company of Stockholm. The ship was still operating under that flag when it capsized and sank in the Baltic Sea, taking 852 souls to the bottom with it. Only 137 people were rescued.


The Estonia was sailing from the Estonian capital of Tallinn with 989 people onboard, bound for Stockholm the following day.


There was a severe storm that day out of the southwest, and the ship was taking waves measuring from six to eight meters as it made its way into the raging seas.


Shortly before midnight, loud noises from the bow door to the car deck were reported to the bridge. A seaman was sent to the deck to investigate, but he reported nothing out of the ordinary.


About 12:10 a.m., two loud bangs were heard and the ship soon began taking on a list. Water was found pouring into the car deck. The ship sent a distress call which was picked up by nearby vessels and the Turku sea rescue center. After that, the Estonia went silent. The ship heeled over and sank so quickly many passengers were trapped aboard ship. Those that escaped didn’t have time to get dressed. Because of the storm and the severe list, the crew was unable to launch lifeboats and many people failed to find life jackets, or get them properly on before they were thrown into the water.


Because of the storm, few assisting ships successfully took people aboard from the violent seas. Most of the people saved were picked up by helicopters from the Turku rescue center and flown directly to nearby hospitals for treatment of hyperthermia.


The sinking of the Estonia thus became one of the worst contemporary ship disasters on record. 


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