New light shed on Estonia disaster

  • 2008-01-16
  • By Adam Krowka

NATIONAL MOURNING: Many Estonians are still grieving over the 1994 ferry tragedy, as this scene from last September's memorial shows.

TALLINN - A team of German scientists has come out with fresh findings regarding the cause of the 1994 Estonia ferry disaster. Their study found the Estonia was traveling too quickly given the adverse weather and actions taken by the crew actually caused the ship to capsize.
Swedish authorities hired the scientists, who work at the Hamburg Ship Model Basin (HSVA) and Hamburg University of Technology, following strong criticism of the 1997 joint Estonian, Finnish and Swedish official report.

The team clarified and expanded on previous findings looking at the evidence afresh. Under the guidance of university researchers Stefan Kruger and Petri Valanto the team took evidence from surviving crewmembers, looked at radar data, recovered part of the wreckage and studied the disaster location to simulate the final moments of the Estonia.
The scientists used one of the world's most advanced shipping disaster simulation programs, ROLLS, to analyze the information. Three separate scenarios examined what happened to the bow doors  attached to the hull and the vehicle ramp. The third scenario, in which both failed to prevent water from rushing into the ship, is thought to be closest to actual events.

In the simulation the Estonia was traveling extremely fast. Engines were running at full speed to make up for delays. The ferry was not designed to deal with the pressure from four-meter waves and stress from the waves broke the bow door away from the hull. The vehicle ramp, a second barrier, opened. Attempts by the crew to turn the ship to the side made matters worse, causing the ferry to tip over and take on water through its large glass windows.
Close to 40 minutes elapsed between the breaking off of the bow door and the capsizing of the Estonia the study found.  Under normal circumstances this should have been ample time for all passengers and crew to escape to open decks, but when the Estonia was listing on its side almost all of these evacuation routes became impassable. Only 250 - 300 of the 989 people on board were able to emerge from below deck before the ship sunk.

A total of 852 people were lost to the waves on the night of Sept. 28, 1994 including famed Estonian singer Urmas Allender. Only 137 people survived the disaster.
Immediately following the incident speculation about  the cause of the disaster from both the public and media was rampant, with many commentators saying that only a bomb could remove the ships's bow door given the strong locking devices joining it to the hull. This theory has been discounted after analysis of parts of the wreckage.
The final report from the HVSA study is due in late March.

Currently nearly 170 ferry crossings take place weekly between Tallinn and Helsinki, and 47 weekly between Tallinn and Stockholm.