TALLINN - families of the victims of the Estonia ferry disaster came a step closer to discovering the truth behind the sinking after the Swedish government announced it would lift an embargo on film footage taken at the site of the wreck. Meanwhile, preliminary research by Swedish scientists has been released, casting new light on why the ferry sank so quickly on the night of Sept. 28, 1994, drowning 825 passengers.
While the information does not reveal any new clues as to the cause of the accident, it does highlight a number of glaring errors in the official final report, building a stronger case for a new and transparent investigation into the sinking.
Modeling work carried out by scientists at Chalmers Technical University of Gothenburg revealed that a far greater amount of water flooded the car deck of the ferry than first realized.
Using simulations and modeling tests, scientists found that as much as 1,200 tons of water per minute rushed into the ship after its bow visor was torn off by waves.
The figure is far higher than considered by the official report, in which it was recorded that between 300 and 600 tons of water per minute flooded the ship.
"If the water that flooded the car deck remained within the interior of the ship and could not find a way out, it makes the course of the sinking much faster than has been asserted until the present," said Claes Kallstrom, head of the Chalmers University investigation group, speaking to Radio Sweden's Ekot program.
Further, scientists found discrepancies in the official report about the exact time of sinking. They found the ship had slanted and began its descent at 1:02 a.m., rather than 1:14 a.m., as stated in the official report. The ship disappeared from radar screens a full 25 minutes before the officially-stated time, the Swedish scientists said.
The full report of the Chalmers University group will be released in March.
Debate about the authority of the official report has raged in Estonia, where many families of the victims have expressed doubt about the veracity of the investigation.
Claims of explosions, cover-ups, government conspiracies and theories about the transportation of military equipment have mired the public's trust.
On Jan. 25, the Swedish government lifted an embargo placed on video footage of the hull of the ferry which was filmed by divers shortly after the sinking.
The underwater footage was filmed by divers under commission from the Swedish Maritime Authority, but has been classified as restricted material until now.
The government said it would also have the footage re-examined to determine if it had been tampered with. There are hopes the film could shed new light on the condition of the hull, which remains a key factor in the sinking.
The divers who filmed the footage have never spoken about what they saw, as they were gagged by an oath of silence. However, the Swedish government has now requested that the Maritime Authority release the divers from their oaths and allow them to talk about what they saw on the seabed.
"No one can make the divers speak about what they saw, but we are asking the Maritime Administration to look at whether the (agreement of non disclosure) can be canceled," Swedish Defense Minister Mikael Odenberg told the Svenska Dagbladet daily newspaper.
The move has been welcomed by Estonian parliamentarians, who have formed a parliamentary committee to pressure for a fresh international investigation.
Evelyn Sepp, the vice chair of the committee, called on all branches of Estonian bureaucracy to follow the Swedish example and release all restricted information.
"This seems to be a very positive development which deserves to be followed here also," Sepp said.
"The divers have previously admitted that they saw big holes in the hull, which points to an explosion. Now they can talk about it without this agreement of silence."
"There is much evidence, directly and indirectly, which points to an explosion on board. The only way to put the matter to rest is to start a new independent investigation."
She said she hoped the Swedish moves were genuine and would result in the discovery of credible information.
"I have seen so many fake gestures by the Swedish government so far. I can only hope this is a genuine step forward."