Estonia ferry dive "already paid off," says organizer

  • 2000-08-31
  • Jaclyn M. Sindrich
TALLINN - U.S. businessman Gregg Bemis and his team of divers were busy beneath the water last week, trying to find what caused the ferry Estonia to sink en route to Stockholm on the night of Sept. 28, 1994.

Bemis's ship, One Eagle, arrived on the site Aug. 22. His seven divers made video recordings of the wreck to determine whether there was a hole in the hull of the Estonia ferry.

Jutta Rabe, a German journalist and organizer of the dive, is also shooting a documentary of the expedition. Bemis intends to sell the film to selected television channels around the world, BNS reported.

Bemis, 72, says he is not interested in making money, but simply intends to uncover the true reason for the disaster that claimed 852 lives.

Finnish and Swedish coast guard vessels are observing the diving expedition to ensure no laws are violated. No items from the wreckage are allowed to be brought up, said Sirle Kaju, the Estonian border guard press officer. Two officers from Estonia's border guard, Eerik Kirsimaa and Mart Kabin, arrived on the Finnish ship, Telkka, on Aug. 23 to observe Bemis' team on behalf of Estonia.

Kaju said the border guard has had infrequent contact with the officers, as the men are staying at sea and telephone communication was impossible. She said the weather had improved, however, and that Bemis was cooperative and polite, though he was not generous with the findings of his operation.

"It is a secret what they found. Bemis doesn't want to tell the journalists either," Kaju said. She expects the expedition, which cost over $200,000, to be over by month's end.

The German journalist Rabe told Agence France-Presse that the details would be disclosed at a press conference in Germany after the mission is completed. She assured, though, that the expedition has been a success. After three dives, she said, "it has paid off already… we are finding interesting things all the time."

The expedition's first day got off to a rugged start when a rogue wave amid stormy weather threw one of Bemis' divers overboard, turning the dive into a rescue operation of sorts. But he was soon recovered, and the diving commenced.

Bemis and his crew do not believe the investigation commission's final report, which concludes that in an intense storm waves ripped off the ship's faulty 56-ton bow visor, flinging open an inner door and flooding the car deck. Doubters have no shortage of alternate theories, mostly pointing to the possibility that the ship sank as a result of an explosion or a hole in the hull below the waterline.

The site has been declared an off-limits sanctuary in an agreement signed by Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Denmark, Lithuania, Russia and Great Britain. Though the dive could not be legally prevented because the site lies in international waters, Bemis faced opposition from the Estonian government and others who saw it as needless or disrespectful.

Stig-Goran Berglund, a Finn who has built an elaborate Web site on the ferry sinking, said the quest for "the truth that is down there" is a search for sensationalism.

His reservations were quelled, however, by the fact that most seemed to support the dive, including those who lost their loved ones in the disaster.

"If no one else can or is going to do anything to clear all contradictions, the dives have a moral approval that goes beyond the negative aspects," he said.

Memento Mare, the organization devoted to the memory of those who died, also endorsed the dive.

"We've decided to let him [Bemis] try," said Raivo Hellerma, chairman of the board. "There's no way we can refuse. Of course, we are not too optimistic."