Tuomo Karppinen of Finland’s Accident Investigation Board was in his bathroom shaving on the morning of September 28th, 1994 when he first heard about the sinking of the Estonian car and passenger ferry Estonia off the Finnish coast while en route from Tallinn to Stockholm.
Karppinen’s daughter came to the door and said: “A ship has sunk in the Archipelago Sea, and 800 people have drowned”.
“‘A ship can’t sink like that, certainly not in the Archipelago Sea’, I thought.”
“I went to work and immediately began making calculations of whether or not the load carried on a ship like the Estonia can cause a ship to tip it over in such a way that it would sink like that.”
A shipbuilding engineer by profession, Karppinen happened to work at the ship laboratory of the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) at the time.
“One of the first guesses at the time was that of a sinking caused by a shift of the load. I thought on my own, that the load cannot shift so much that it would cause a ship to sink”, Karppinen recalls.
“I noted that listing caused by a shifting load would be no more than ten degrees, and that it could not be as much as 30 degrees. A ten-degree list would not sink a ship. Something else must have happened.”
Karppinen concluded that the only possibility was that the ship must have taken on water.
Now, 15 years later, Karppinen holds the position of director of the Accident Investigation Board.
There has not been much debate in recent years about the sinking of the Estonia. The results of the official inquiry by the Accident Investigation Board were published in 1997. Finns have accepted long ago that the sinking of the Estonia was an accident.
But is the case really closed?
Karppinen compares the Estonia sinking with that of the Titanic. The latter went down 100 years ago, but it continues to fascinate people.
“This will certainly happen with the Estonia as well.”
Private investigations have continued in Sweden and in Germany. The German author Jutta Raabe wrote a book on the matter, which was turned into a feature film. She also dived to the wreck.
“But apparently she did not find signs of an explosion, considering that those pictures have not been shown in public”, Karppinen observes.
A big international report on ship safety was published in January this year, in which the Estonia disaster was one of the main topics.
Karppinen says that the group, which drew up models of thousands of different options for a scenario, using models and calculations, was not able to find anything new on the subject.
So why are there constant calls in Germany and Sweden for new investigations?
“My own view is that the reason for the interest of the Germans is that the Meyer shipyard, which built the vessel, is a family company, in which the sinking of the Estonia was taken vary hard.”
As Karppinen sees it, feelings of guilt may have encouraged the proliferation of theories blaming the sinking on a single external cause, such as an explosion.
According to the final conclusions of the official accident investigation, no single guilty party can be found, as problems and shortcomings were noticed on many levels.
“There is no single cause for such a large accident. The Estonia was a product of its own age and culture.
Partly to blame were the construction standards of the time, and the scant knowledge of the effect of storm conditions on the bow. At that time many other ships were built, in which the bow was as weak as on the Estonia.
On the night of the sinking, waves in the Gulf of Finland were four metres high. In big storms they can reach heights of eight metres.