Thursday, May 10, 2007

Was M/S Estonia sunk by an explosion?

A new Swedish-German expert group on the 1994 M/S Estonia catastrophe does not exclude an explosion as cause of the shipwreck. Such a conclusion has so far been ruled out by all other investigations, but few explanations have been given for the fast course of events when the ship went down.

On the evening of 27 September 1994, the Estline ferry M/S Estonia left Tallinn heading for Stockholm, with 989 people on board. Around midnight, the ship came into difficulties and at 00:23 hours sent out a distress call to ships in the vicinity. Exactly what happened after M/S Estonia's mayday is still in dispute, but the ship went down within the ensuing 20 minutes, taking with it 852 lives. It was by far the biggest ferry catastrophe ever in the Baltic Sea during peacetime.

The catastrophe occurred little over a month after the last Russian troops had left Estonian soil. It thus came at an inconvenient moment for Estonia, as the country had just regained full sovereignty over its territory. Consequently, the stage was set for widespread speculations and conspiracy theories. Despite the fact that numerous investigations, reports, and commissions of inquiry have concluded that there was no foul play, such theories still linger on. One of the most widespread speculations is that the Russian secret services would have placed a bomb on board, due to alleged smuggling of Russian military equipment by the Swedish military intelligence service. The Swedish military service has later admitted that it transported such equipment on M/S Estonia, but claims that so was not the case at this specific time.

Then, why did M/S Estonia sink? Most analysts agree that the main cause of the catastrophe was that the bow visor of Estonia was torn off by hard waves, causing also the front ramp of the ship to come loose. The immediate effect was that the sea flowed directly onto the car deck of the ferry, causing it to capsize within the course of less than half an hour.

What the new expert group, commissioned by the Swedish government, will do is to review various alternatives to explain why water penetrated the ship so quickly. The assumption remains that the main reason was the loss of the bow visor, but researchers will also scrutinise complementary explanations. One is that a hole would have been ripped open in the hull of the ship due to an explosion, which several survivors claim to have heard. However, no hole has so far been found to account for such a theory. Additional theories is that ventilation shafts would have facilitated the flow of water through the ship, and another that it came in by crushed windows. All in all, the research group will analyse eight additional or complementary scenarios causing the catastrophe.

So, should this news lead us to assume that there was foul play in the Estonia catastrophe? Most probably not. The only thing this research group will do, is really to go over all evidence again without prejudice and thereby include any possible hypothesis. It is not very likely that they will reach any other conclusion than has previously been made. Still, the Estonia catastrophe remains a national trauma in both Estonia and Sweden, so it is understandable that no stone will be left unturned in trying to wholly explain the shipwreck. An Estonian report was issued only in March this year, and the new Swedish-German expert group will probably not be the last to look into the matter.

What is perhaps the most tragic thing about continuously new reports about the Estonia catastrophe is that the families and relatives of the victims are never really allowed to put the issue at rest. After nearly 13 years, rumours are still at sway about what really happened, regardless of all inquiries and reports. Given the evidence produced so far, it is highly unlikely that M/S Estonia was sunk by an explosion. Still, also among the families there are many that will never learn to accept what happened and are trying to find explanations that simply might not exist. Paradoxically, not being able to put a thing like Estonia behind oneself is part and parcel of the tragedy itself, so the future will probably hold a stream of reports gradually turning into a trickle, as the people affected by Estonia gradually pass away. For today and the future, this is the greatest tragedy.


CrisisMaven said...

"no hole has so far been found to account for such a theory" - why would you say this? Divers have photographed an explosion hole over a foot wide and cut metal pieces which later were tested amongst others by British military explosives experts. Three material testing institutes independently concurred in saying that it was a hole caused by an explosion plus there's no explanation whatsoever in the history of materials science nor maritime history to suggest how a hull would be holed FROM THE INSIDE absent an explosion!

Peter Pan said...

I tend to agree with many ship building experts who say that even if the bow visor had come off and water had flooded the car ferry deck and caused the ferry to capsize the ship wouldn't sink unless the water tight buoyancy compartments that make up the hull were ruptured. Why was a thorough and public investigation of the hull not done? And why was the ship's computer missing? Zephyr