Originally published on 29 September 1994
An international commission of inquiry was launched last night into Europe's worst ferry disaster after it emerged that Swedish inspectors allowed the car ferry Estonia to set sail in storm-force winds in the Baltic with defective door seals.
The disaster, which claimed the lives of 823 people early yesterday, plunged Sweden and Estonia into national mourning. Rescue efforts continued all day, but were suspended last night with 141 people found, 42 bodies recovered, and the remainder of the 964 aboard missing presumed dead.
As with the 1987 ferry tragedy off Zeebrugge, which claimed 193 lives, the issue that mattered last night for hundreds of grieving relatives was why the disaster had occurred.
The investigation by Finland, Sweden and Estonia, was expected to focus on the Swedish safety inspectors' discovery, only hours before the ferry sailed from Tallinn en route to Stockholm, of defective seals on a door to the vessel's car deck.
But the Swedish inspectors, who spent five hours on board the doomed ferry, said last night that they had found only minor faults, none big enough to have caused the disaster.
The ferry capsized and sank in high seas several minutes after developing a 30-degree list 23 nautical miles off the Finnish island of Uto.
Its last radio message recorded by the Finnish coastguard was: "Mayday, mayday. This is Estonia. Twenty to 40 degrees heavy list. Position 59 degrees, 22 minutes. Blackout."
There were contradictory reports from a surviving crew member who said that he saw water pouring through seals on the main car deck door.
"On the TV monitor in the machine room, we could see water rushing in on the car deck. I think the rough seas somehow broke the entrance to the car deck open," the crewman, Henrik Sillaste, said. He was quoted earlier as saying the door had been left open.
Estline, the jointly Estonian-Swedish owned ferry company, refused to comment on the claims, saying only that the ship's four engines stopped.
The Estonian transport minister, Andi Meister, dismissed reports that the Swedish inspection found faulty seals. Last night, Mr Meister said that the Swedish experts might not be objective because Swedish maritime unions had opposed the cross-Baltic route being operated by a company half-owned by the Estonian state using low-wage crews.
The passengers were mainly Swedish and Estonian, but there were at least two Britons on board, one of whom, Paul Barney, survived. The other was still missing last night.
The 188-strong crew was mainly Estonian.
The ferry sank so quickly that many passengers were trapped in their cabins. There was panic on board. Survivors spoke of passengers scrambling to get on deck. Others drowned in their sleep.
"Many people didn't wake up in time," said Einar Kukk, aged 32, a second mate. "Some were drinking and partying and were not in the best condition to cope."