Design and Construction
Estonia was originally ordered from a Norwegian shipping company called Meyer Werft. The ship was intended for use on a ferry line between Norway and Germany, but the order was withdrawn at the last minute for unknown reasons and the contract was given to Rederi Ab Sally, a Finnish shipping company that was part of the Viking Line consortium.
The Estonia, originally named Viking Sally, was originally designed to be a sister ship to the MV Diana II, now MS Bluefort, which was built in 1979 by Meyer Werft for the Swedish shipping company, Rederi AB Slite. When Rederi Ab Sally took the contract, they weren't happy with the design. It was originally meant to be 449 ft in length. R.A. Sally lengthened the ship from 449 ft to 509 ft and made significant changes to her superstructure.
Among the changes to the superstructure was an extension forward of the bridge, presumably to accommodate more passengers. The superstructure was also extended all the way to the stern for similar reasons. The superstructure immediately below the bridge was removed and the deck rooms below shortened significantly so additional lifeboats could be added. Finally, the funnel was completely redesigned, with a rounded and sleek appearance compared to the Diana II's more rectangular funnel, and given its own deckhouse.
One noted change to the ship's hull was a new bow design. Previously, ferries had been built with a pair of bow doors that could be opened to allow vehicles to be loaded onto specially designed Car Decks. This design allowed multiple car decks to be on one ship, but it also mean they had to use ramps that were built on the docks; in some cases, the ship was taller than the ramp was long. Viking Sally was to have a bow design that had been used on Diana II. Instead of a pair of bow doors, Viking Sally had a flared bow visor that could be lifted using a pair of hydraulic lifting cylinders and rotated on a pair of hinges. This design meant the ferry could be given a car ramp of its own. Viking Sally's ramp ended up being longer than the hull was tall. As a result, the visor was modified with a ramp housing so the ramp could be pretected from the elements.
Meyer Werft must have been well trusted by the Viking Line, because they had constructed many ships for many different Viking Line subcompanies. Though accounts on the construction method used on the Viking Sally are scarse, we can assume they used the block method which was becoming increasingly popular. First, sections of the ship, called blocks, were constructed off site, presumably in a warehouse. The blocks were then delivered to a dry dock where they were assembled to form the ship which was then launched.
Viking Sally had 10 decks, numbered 0 to 9 from lowest to highest respectively.
- Deck 0 had a sauna and a swimming pool. There was also a conference room there for meetings.
- Deck 1 had inside cabins for crew members. This was also where the Engine Room was located along with the Engine Control Room.
- Deck 2 was where the Car Deck was located.
- Deck 3 had a car platform for additional vehicle capacity.
- Deck 4, also known as the Conference Deck, was the lowest passenger deck. It was named after the Conference Rooms it housed. It also had a nightclub and a cinima as well as inside and outside cabins for passengers.
- Deck 5, also known as the Entrance and Cafeteria Deck, had tax-free shops and a cafeteria from which it was named. There was also a snack bar in addition to a discotheque. It also had a Play Room for children. The deck also housed air seats and additional inside and outside cabins for passengers.
- Deck 6, also known as the Restaurant Deck, had a Buffet Dining Room, as well as a bar and an a la carte restaurant after which it was named. This was the highest deck with inside and outside cabins for passengers.
- Deck 7 had additional crew cabins, in the foremost area, and facilities. This was also known as the Boat Deck because it was where the lifeboats hung.
- Deck 8 was also known as the Sundeck although Deck 7 also had a Sundeck of its own.
- Deck 9 was the highest Sundeck on the ship, but it was also where the bridge was located.
On June 29, 1980, the Viking Sally was delivered to R.A. Sally and put into service. Her assigned route ran between Turku and Mariehamn in Finland and the Swedish capital, Stockholm. At that time, she was the largest ship operating on the route.
During her service in the Viking Line, Viking Sally had several accidents and mishaps. In May 1984, for instance, she ran aground in the Aland Archipelaco. In April 1985, she suffered propeller problems. Later that year, she was given a "duck tail" at the stern.
While Viking Sally was the largest ship on her route, she wasn't a successful one. The Viking Line was experiencing financial problems throught most of the 80's, preventing Viking Sally from aiding much in terms of profit. In late 1987, Effoa and Johnson Line, the owners of Viking Line's rival, the Silja Line, bought R.A. Sally, forcing them to withdraw from the Viking Line. Viking Sally was then chartered to R.A. Slite to continue her traffic for the next 3 years, during which she was fitted with cameras in her Car Deck and indicators on her bridge as a result of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster on March 6, 1987.
In 1990, after the charter ended, Viking Sally began serving for the Silja Line. Her red hull and black draft were repainted white and blue respectively. She was also given blue bands around her superstructure and her black and red funnel was repainted blue with the Silja Line's logo. The ship was the renamed Silja Star. The Silja Lina allowed the ship to keep her original route until their new ship, MV Wellamo, now named Mega Andrea, was completed in November 1990. Later that year, Effoa and Johnson merged with S.A. Sally into EffJohn.
In the Spring of 1991, Silja Star was transferred to another company owned by EffJohn, the Wasa Line, and renamed Wasa King. She were likely repainted as well to Wasa Line colors. As well as serving a new line, Wasa King was also given a different route, between Vaasa in Finland and the Swedish ports of Umea and Sundsvall. During her career in the Wasa Line, Wasa King was widely considered to be the best behaving ship in rough weather to have sailed from Vaasa.
On September 6, 1991, the struggling nation, Estonia, regained independence, originally declared back in 1918, from the Soviet Union. The parades that followed would've dazzled the average citizen. The Estonians wrote messages on walls, like "Russians Go Home," and pulled down statues of Russian rulers. The political upheaval taking place in Estonia would once again cast the shadow of change upon the Wasa King.
In January 1993, after nearly 2 years of service in the Wasa Line, Wasa King was sold to Estonia's new shipping line, Estline, after EffJohn merged Wasa Line's operations into Silja Line. Wasa King was likely given refits, adding on to possible refits given by her previous owners, by her new owners and was renamed Estonia, after the country who operated Estline. The ship took on her final appearance, a blue draft with a white hull and three blue bands on the supertructure along with a repaint of the funnel with Estline's logo, and was given what would become her final route, running between Estonia's capital, Tallinn, and the Swedish capital, Stockholm. Estonia quickly became a symbol of her new countries independence as she was the largest ship in the Estonian fleet at that time.
Preparations and Departure
On Tuesday, September 27, 1994, after 14 years of service, Estonia was docked in Tallinn and preparing for another regular voyage to Stockholm. On board the ferry were 803 passengers as well as her crew of 186. For many of the crew, this voyage was their first professional crossing and most of them were Estonian.
Possibly not among the Estonian crew members was the ship's newest captain, Arvo Andresson. Andresson was trained in the Soviet Union and had 23 years of experience at sea. He had been Estonia's captain since she joined Estline, so the voyage to Stockholm wouldn't have been out of the ordinary to him.
Many passengers were also onboard.
- Kent Harstedt was traveling on board Estonia as part of a party club.
- Mikeal Oun was a truck driver who was likely sailing on Estonia as part of a delivery job.
- Magnus Lindstrum was traveling on Estonia with his parents and girlfriend Katarina.
- Rolf Sorman was a former diver who was likely on vacation when he boarded Estonia.
Also several crew members were perparing for the voyage.
- Hele Mottus was a bartender on the Estonia. At some point in the day, she found out that she was pregnant and would soon be forced to quit her job.
- Anneli Konnrad was a dancer on board.
At 7:15 PM, Estonia departed Tallinn on route to Stockholm. It seemed at the time that the voyage would be business as usual.
At some point before 9 PM, a storm began to build around the Estonia. Captain Andresson kept his ship moving at around 15 knots through the storm as he was always under pressure to keep to his ship's tight schedule. He would've been concerned when he found the ship was listing degrees to starboard. This was due to poor cargo distribution.
By 9 PM, the winds had reached 33 miles per hour, and it had started to rain. Passengers were busy having fun. They couldn't have noticed the storm building outside. Many were partying in the nightclub and discotheque. Kent was among them. One of the watchmen also decided to join the fun. At around this time, Anneli and several other dancers began their show.
By 9:45 PM, the winds had increased in speed and the waves had reached 15 feet high, but Andresson refused to slow his ship. The list was slowly growing, now reaching between 5 and 6 degrees. Passengers were now starting to notice the storm outside by the pitching and rolling of the ship. Some joked that the bartenders would give them free champagne, a reference to the Titanic tragedy.
By 10:30 PM, the winds had sped to 50 miles per hour. The pitching of the ship was now disrupting movement through the hallways. Sudden lurches threw them against the walls, sometimes into other passengers. At this time, many passengers went to their cabins to turn in for the night. Mikeal Oun was among them. During the night, he remembered noticing his truck wasn't secured to the Car Deck properly.
At 11:30 PM, the wind changed direction, now blowing headlong into the ship. Captain Andresson pushed his ship on knowing he was falling behind schedule. Meanwhile, down below, one of the passengers reported water in her cabin. The party in the nightclub and discotheque continued on, but was disrupted by periodic lurches in the ship's pitch and trim.
At 12:30 AM, Captain Andresson ordered the ship's stabilizing fins extended to keep the ship stable. He probably wasn't happy about this, as he was already an hour behind schedule and his ship had slowed to 14 knots. Many passengers down below were getting seasick and retired to their cabins. Kent was nearly one of them. The movement of the ship through the waves was starting to make him uncomfortable. Even the wildest of the partying passengers were having trouble keeping their footing, including the dancers. Eventually, Anneli Konnrad retired for the night, but not before joking with the other dancers about their uproarious performance.
Around 12:53 AM, Anneli went down to deck 2 where she heard car alarms going off. She immediately raced back to her cabin and went to bed. Hele Mottus also turned in due to the storm raging outside.
At around 12:55 AM, a loud metallic bang was heard throughout the ship, sounding as though it was coming from the bow. A watchman reported this to the bridge.
At 12:57 AM, Captain Andresson retired for the night and passed command to his second officer. No one on the bridge was aware of what was going on in the visor. Three locking pins held the visor in place, but the constant pounding of the waves on the port bow was pushing on the port side lock while pulling in the starboard side lock was causing them to crack.
First Signs of Trouble
At 12:59 AM, a large wave crashed into the visor, causing the starboard side lock to break. Next to fail was the starboard hinge, followed by the bottom lock. The port hinge and side lock broke last. The visor was now detached from the hull, held on only by the lifting cylinders. Another wave swept the visor up and outward, causing another metallic bang. The waves swept the visor up and dropped it again. The visor then slid forward slightly, hitting the car ramp and pulling it partly open. Now, water began spraying past the ramp and onto the Car Deck. The visor was repeatedly lifted and dropped by the waves. Each time this happened, the lifting cylinders cut through the Forecastle slightly. As more water came in, the list corrected itself and the ship began to ride deeper in the waves. When it got deep enough, the flooded visor couldn't lift as high anymore and the bangs were increasingly muffled. The passengers and crew now felt everything was alright.
At 1:10 AM, Hannes Kadak, a junior engineer, saw water flooding the Car Deck through the monitor in the Engine Control Room. Believing it was rainwater, he switched on the pumps to clear it out, but he probably didn't see it necessary to notify the bridge, so he didn't bother. Minutes later, the chief engineer came into the Engine Control Room. When he checked the monitor for the Car Deck, he saw that the active pumps were being overwhelmed. He then went on his own inspection where he saw the water was up to his knees. Upon realizing this, he rushed back to the Engine Control Room to warn the bridge, but by the time he got there, it was too late.
Sudden Heeling and Chaos
It was now almost 1:15 AM. Before the chief engineer could contact the bridge, the visor finally detached, hitting the bulbous bow and pulling the ramp down with it. Huge waves of water surged into the Car Deck. A slight list to starboard caused by the waves forced the water to starboard. The Estonia lurched violently to starboard, throwing everyone against the walls.
On the bridge, the second officer shouted at the third officer to check the indicators. The third mate, after checking, told the second the indicators were green and the doors were shut. It was then believed that they hit something. They immediately ordered Kadak to pump water into the port ballast tanks. The engineer went to do so only to find the port tanks already full. There was nothing more he could do. Captain Andresson was likely on his way to his cabin when the ship lurched. He immediately struggled back to the bridge.
Meanwhile, the passengers were starting to panic. From here, their chances of survival depended on where they were in the ship and how quickly they reacted. Magnus Lindstrum was in his cabin on Deck 4. He immediately woke his girlfriend and rushed to get him and his family dressed. Mikeal Oun, also on Deck 4, reacted right away as well. Kent Harstedt was still in the nightclub on Deck 4 when the ship lurched. He found himself temporarily deaf. Concerned, he rushed for the staircases. Anneli Konnrad also raced to escape, but the 20 degree list made simply exiting her cabin difficult. Hele Mottus reacted differently. As a member of the crew, she followed basic emergency training which called for her to layer herself in clothes and report to her emergency station.
As passengers rushed up the main staircases, a watchman, who was sent to reinspect the Car Deck, ran into the tide of frightened passengers and was presumably trampled. He notified the bridge of the chaos in the stairwells.
Soon, Captain Andresson was back on the bridge. He immediately ordered a turn to port, hoping the wind and waves would push Estonia back upright. Upon making the turn, the centripetal force pushed the ship even further to starboard, further increasing the list.
Around this time, Magnus and his family found the staircase. He immediately rushed to the stairs where he met Mikeal Oun. After advancing up a few decks, Magnus glanced behind him to find his family weren't with him. He raced back down and found to his horror that they were still in the hallway across from the staircase. He reached out his hand and begged them to go with him, probably pointing out what many of the passengers were already thinking, that the Estonia was sinking. But his parents and girlfriend were paralyzed by the situation around them, and refused to cross the hallway. His mother yelled at him to save himself, and order he wasted no time carrying out.
Anneli paused her ascent up the staircase when she saw a woman with blood running down her face. Assuming the woman was dead, she continued up the stairs. She also saw other women and children sitting in corners, paralyzed by the panic.
Rolf Sorman and many other passengers eventually made it to the Boat Deck, but Sorman was immediately confronted by a group of men who took his gold chain and ran off with it. Rolf then found that other passengers were being mugged as well. And all that happened within minutes!
At approximately 1:21 AM, the engines stalled, leaving Estonia at the mercy of the wind and waves. The ship was now listing 30 degrees and the list was growing fast. The waves smashed against Estonia's hull, causing the ship to roll violently, throwing passengers about.
On the bridge, a sudden lurch dislodged equipment from a wall of the bridge. Some of it struck Captain Andresson, knocking him unconscious and sending him rolling down the slanting deck and into the windows on the starboard bridge wing. The second officer, probably panicking, sent out a coded message through the ship's speakers that was an order to the crew, but whether it was to abandon ship or to report to the fire stations is unknown. As a member of the crew, Hele Mottus understood the message and rushed to her station to find it underwater. By now, passengers were well and truly panicking. Desperate to save themselves, they scrambled about the deck in the pouring rain, looking for life jackets. The search became so desperate, that some took life jackets from other passengers. Anneli Konnrad had put two life jackets on because she had never put one on before. Due to the rapidly growing list and chaos among the passengers, an orderly evacuation was impossible.
At 1:22 AM, a desperate second officer began sending out distress calls. The Viking Line ferry, MS Mariella, responded to the signal, but the Estonia didn't hear the reply. Now, the second officer was panicking so much, that he abandoned mayday protocol and began calling for Silja Line's Silja Europa. Silja Europa responded to the signal at which point Estonia declared a mayday. As Mariella joined in the confusion, Estonia lurched violently, throwing the second officer off the console and leaving it up to officer, Andres Tammes. He probably didn't speak English, so the conversation carried on in Finnish.
Tammes explained the situation, describing the severe list. Silja Europa then requested Estonia's position, but due to a black out Tammes was unable to provide the coordinates. Silja Europa and Mariella began debating over what to do. Mariella then attempted to contact the mainland and explain the situation, but interference prevented the message from getting through. Then, at 1:30 AM, Estonia sent another message to Silja Europa. The blackout had ended and Tammes was now able to provide Estonia's coordinates and did so. He ended the message by saying the situation was getting very bad. Silja Europa replied by telling him that they would be there in around 48 minutes. This would be the last message sent by the Estonia.
Capsizing and Sinking
By now, Estonia's list had reached 60 degrees. Passengers were able to climb onto the ship's side. Kent Harstedt had climbed onto the side when he saw a girl. He pulled her up and learned her name was Sarah. After introducing himself, he promised that he would take her to dinner if they both survived. Sarah accepted and they both slid down the side and into the water. Upon surfacing Sarah asked Kent who he was as if she had forgotten him though she probably couldn't see his face in the darkness.
Minutes later, Estonia rolled onto her side. Her interior now became a death pit, and many passengers fell through the windows to their deaths. Many others took a leap into the sea. A large number of life rafts were swept from the sinking ferry, but many of them failed to inflate. In total, as many as 310 passengers and crew would manage to escape.
Shortly afterward, someone on the bridge, perhaps officer Tammes, blew the ship's horn three times to signify the abandon ship order. And the third blow was sounded, Estonia rolled over again, this time capsizing. As she rolled, some of the lifeboats were torn from their davits. By 1:45 AM, the ship was upside down and sinking rapidly by the stern. Rolf Sorman managed to cling onto a life raft and was holding the arms of a young woman who had also found the raft. The sinking ship began to pull Rolf's raft towards it, but a wave washed the occupants overboard before the ship could pull them under. At 1:50 AM, 35 minutes after the visor fell off, Estonia hit the bottom of the Baltic Sea, around 260 feet below, slipped beneath the waves and sank, disappearing from radar screens.
Struggle for Survival
Passengers who had escaped the ship now found themselves adrift in the stormy seas. Knowing the body temperature falls upon falling asleep, the survivors did their best to stay awake, but many fell asleep and died of hypothermia. Others began hallucinating and attacked fellow passengers, only to be knocked unconscious and die. The fierce storm was also taking its too. The waves washed survivors off their rafts and they died. For those who weren't washed away, all they could do was to wait, hope, and pray for rescue.
At 2:12 AM, Mariella arrived at the scene. The ship had previously attempted to contact a radio station about the situation, but the message was forwarded as a pan-pan message, signifying that Estonia's passengers and crew weren't in immediate danger. An emergency was declared at 2:30 AM, 40 minutes after the Estonia had sunk.
Mariella immediately began sending out liferafts, but only 13 people were successfully transfered. Helicopters arrived at 3:05 AM and began picking up survivors. They transfered them to the ferries Mariella and Silja Europa which had also arrived on the scene.
34 survivors were picked up by ship; the rest were rescued by helicopter. The reason for this was the conditions were deemed too rough to send out lifeboats.
The Lost and Saved
In total, 138 survivors were rescued, but 1 later died in the hospital. The vast majority of the survivors were young men. 7 people over 55 years old survived.
852 of the 989 passengers and crew onboard the Estonia were lost. Of the lost, 501 were Swedish, 285 were Estonian, 17 were Latvian, 11 were German, 11 were Russian, 10 were Finnish, 6 were Norwegian, 5 were Danish, 3 were Lithuanian, 2 were Moroccan, 1 was Belarusian, 1 was Canadian, 1 was French, 1 was Dutch, 1 was Nigerian, 1 was Ukrainian, and 1 was British. Among the victims was Estonia singer Urmas Alender. No one under 12 year old survived.
The Sinking of the Estonia was met with skepticism. The Estonia had been given a golden pass, declaring her fit to sail anywhere in the world, yet she had sunk with a great loss of life and everyone wanted to know why.
The day after the sinking, the investigations began. The inquiry, made of officials from Finland, Sweden, and Estonia interviewed survivors to find out what happened. They were surprised to see the number of surviving crew members to be far higher than what was acceptable. They also found to their surprise that there were very few female survivors and no surviving children.
When the survivors were asked about the events leading up to the disaster, they reported that the ship was rolling heavily in the waves and metallic bangs from the front. This was an indication that the bow visor fell off, a theory which was confirmed when the visor was found separated from the ship.