Ferry Sinks in the Baltic Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The sinking of the ferry M/S Estonia while it was en route from Tallinn, Estonia, to Stockholm, Sweden, revealed weaknesses in the region’s emergency response systems and raised intense speculation about the chain of events leading up to the catastrophe.

Summary of Event

The M/S Estonia, a German-built luxury ferry, left Tallinn harbor on the evening of September 27, 1994, bound for Stockholm, Sweden, carrying 989 passengers, including 189 Estonian crew members, as well as forty trucks/trailers, twenty-five passenger cars, nine vans, and two buses. The ferry sailed into the stiff winds of a Baltic storm and took waves that reached six feet, but these were not unusual conditions, and there was no compelling reason for concern. As the Estonia approached the halfway point of its 350-kilometer (217-mile) journey, sometime around midnight, its fifty-ton bow door, designed to open the ferry to vehicle traffic when in port, broke under the steady pounding of the waves. As the door broke loose, it broke the locks on the inner door, causing water to pour into the car deck and quickly overwhelm the pumping system. The ferry listed sharply to starboard by 15 degrees. Estonia (ship) Disasters;sinking vessels [kw]Ferry Sinks in the Baltic (Sept. 28, 1994) [kw]Sinks in the Baltic, Ferry (Sept. 28, 1994) [kw]Baltic, Ferry Sinks in the (Sept. 28, 1994) Estonia (ship) Disasters;sinking vessels [g]Europe;Sept. 28, 1994: Ferry Sinks in the Baltic[08960] [g]Finland;Sept. 28, 1994: Ferry Sinks in the Baltic[08960] [c]Disasters;Sept. 28, 1994: Ferry Sinks in the Baltic[08960] Bemis, Gregg Rabe, Jutta Ångström, Lars

On the bridge, there was a lack of information about what had happened, and there was confusion among the crew; the panel lights indicated no problems on board, so no alarms were sounded to alert the passengers. Not having full information, the captain and his crew reduced the ship’s speed, steered toward port, and made a fatal miscalculation by positioning the listing side of the ship in the direction of the wind and waves. The sea poured into the accommodation decks. By 1:20 a.m., the ship’s engines had stopped and the vessel was rolling and jerking starboard, its passengers thrown about, drowning in the cabins and passageways. Passengers and crew had about fifteen minutes in which to save themselves.

The first “Mayday . . . Estonia” was sent at 1:22 a.m., about the same time the first alarm was sounded, and within minutes afterward the ferry tilted to nearly 90 degrees, virtually on its side. People met their deaths trapped on the upturned hull or were tossed into the sea when the ship rolled. Passengers struggled to open life rafts and locate life jackets, but there was no systematic launching of rafts, and many jackets were either too large or too small. About 1:50 a.m., the Estonia slipped slowly beneath the waves and sunk to the muddy bottom of the Baltic, taking hundreds to their graves.

The first vessel on the scene, the passenger ferry Mariella, arrived fifty minutes after the first distress call but was able to pull only a dozen people from the sea. The nations of Finland, Sweden, and Estonia launched a massive emergency response and rescue operation, putting helicopters and patrol boats into operation around the clock. Emergency planning The rescue helicopters were ill equipped and understaffed, however, and as cables broke, some rafts they attempted to lift fell tragically back into the stormy sea. With water temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, many people succumbed to hypothermia in the sea or in waterlogged rafts while awaiting rescue. Only 137 people survived the catastrophe, and just 94 bodies were recovered by the crews.

The M/S Estonia was built in 1979 at the Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg, Germany; the SF Line ordered the ferry and later sold it to Rederi Ab Sally, a partner in the Viking Line consortium. Originally named Viking Sally, the ferry became Silja Star in 1990 when the Silja Line put it into service. Its name was changed to Wasa King when it went into service for Wasa Line, and in 1993 it was sold to a long-established Swedish company, Nordström and Thulin, renamed the Estonia, and placed in use on the Tallinn-Stockholm route. The ferry was registered in both Estonia and Cyprus and was co-owned by the Estonian state and the Swedish company.

In a report dated December 3, 1997, the Joint Accident Investigation Commission, composed of Swedish, Finnish, and Estonian investigators, placed the blame for the Estonia tragedy with the German shipyard, citing failure of the vessel’s bow visor locking devices. Another commission, the German Group of Experts, concluded that the vessel was unseaworthy owing to poor maintenance and inspections, including problems with corrosion. The investigations of both groups, however, came under sharp criticism for being inherently flawed in structure and approach.


The sinking of the Estonia was the deadliest maritime disaster in Europe since World War II. In addition to the devastating loss of life, it brought to light many deficiencies in the ferry’s operation as well as in the region’s search-and-rescue procedures. The ferry’s alarms did not sound immediately to alert crew and passengers. Many were crushed in narrow doorways, killed by falling equipment, or drowned because life rafts and life jackets were difficult to release and inflate. Life rafts lowered to the water were dangerous and difficult to enter and were easily capsized; some became so heavily waterlogged that the passengers in them died of hypothermia.

There were no video monitors in the vehicle bay, and the vessel’s crew members did not act when they heard loud, vibrating noises. Had the extent of the danger been understood, the captain likely would have put the ferry in reverse, thus preventing the swamping and delaying or preventing the sinking. The rescue helicopters sent to help during the disaster were not built to handle the weight of the life rafts, and each was inadequately staffed, with only one rescue worker on board. These were hard lessons that led ultimately to improvements in ferry safety and maritime rescue operations.

The full details of the Estonia tragedy remain unknown, and that fact has given rise to abundant speculation, a feature film (Baltic Storm, 2003), and numerous books and theories. Within months of the tragedy, the Swedish government announced that there would be no recovery operation. In 1995, the Estonia Agreement was signed by Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Denmark, Russia, and the United Kingdom; the treaty recognized the sanctity of the site of the ferry’s wreckage and prohibited the citizens of those countries from exploring it. Citizens of nonsignatory countries are not bound by the agreement, however, and in 2000 American adventurer Gregg Bemis led a diving team that explored the wreck and found evidence of an explosion.

German journalist Jutta Rabe investigated the tragedy and pointed the finger of blame at the Russian secret service and the highest levels of the Swedish government. The motion picture Baltic Storm, Baltic Storm (film) based on Rabe’s book, alleges that the Swedish government used the ferry to transport contraband military technologies to the United States, possibly secret space weapons. Suspicion surrounded the Swedish government’s decision to encase the wreckage in concrete, an expensive operation and one that many thought suggested a nuclear component. A dozen members of the Estonia crew purportedly disappeared after being rescued, and some believe their disappearance was organized by the Swedish government. An investigation by Swedish state television in 2004 led to a documentary film and the revelation that the M/S Estonia had transported Soviet military equipment to the West in the weeks prior to its Baltic sinking.

In 2006, Swedish and Estonian family members of the victims requested a suspension of the ban on diving to the wreckage by presenting a letter to the signatories of the Estonia Agreement of 1995. Their intent was to encourage further investigation into the tragedy by allowing the collection of physical evidence from the site. The case of the Estonia points up the difficulty of coordinating international investigations of maritime disasters, sorting out fact from fancy, and dealing with highly sensitive intelligence issues on a world stage. Estonia (ship) Disasters;sinking vessels

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Björkman, Anders. Lies and Truth About the M/V Estonia Accident. Monaco: Imprime par Multiprint, 1998. Provides details on conspiracy theories concerning the accident, including updates on the findings of international research consortia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Langewiesche, William. The Outlaw Sea. London: Granta Books, 2005. Presents an overview of maritime crimes and criminal investigations, including the problems that arose in the investigation of the Estonia tragedy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ritchie, David. Shipwrecks: An Encyclopedia of the World’s Worst Disasters at Sea. New York: Facts On File, 1996. Provides succinct summaries of sea disasters, with basic information on who, what, where, and why.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Drew. The Hole: Another Look at the Sinking of the Estonia Ferry on September 28, 1994. Liskeard, Cornwall, England: Diggory Press, 2006. Explores alternative explanations for the Estonia sinking, with a focus on the Soviet connection.

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Categories: History