Thursday, September 29, 2005

S.S. Estonia

Yesterday was the 11th anniversary of the sinking of the ferry S.S. Estonia. On September 28, 1994, it sank in the Baltic Sea. Over 800 people died that day, most of them Estonians, many of them children. Estonia is a small country; to have so many people lost is proportionally a huge disaster — roughly as if 115,000 Americans were lost in some horrible accident. The photo of the bell, at right, is from the monument on Tahkuna, Hiiumaa — the point of land within Estonia that is closest to where the ferry sank. The faces on the bell are in memory of the children who died that day. The reasons for the sinking are still very much in dispute, as you can see by this press report from yesterday:

TALLINN, September 28 (Itar-Tass) -- The relatives of those who perished in the Estonia ferry disaster of eleven years ago have urged another, independent investigation into what proved the biggest post-war loss of human life on the Baltic Sea.

The relatives voiced the demand in a resolution adopted at a conference in Tallinn on the eve of the tragedy that occurred in the Gulf of Finland on September 28, 1994.

“For the sake of restoring justice and coping with the moral duty to those dead and their relatives the investigation of the ferry disaster must be resumed under the supervision of an independent Estonian judge,” the relatives said.

The ferry disaster claimed 852 lives. There were 137 survivors.

A panel of investigators from Finland, Sweden and Estonia arrived at the conclusion that the ferry’s loss was due to faulty locks of the front gates of the ship’s car deck. Waves tore the gates away and the water that flooded the car deck caused a dangerous list. The ferry eventually capsized and sank.

Versions explaining the ferry’s loss are many – from collision with an unidentified submarine to conspiracy by smugglers of drugs and rare earth metals.

Many suspect there might have been an explosion on board. Evidence to this effect emerged after examination of fragments of the ship’s hull held at the request of Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine and the findings of expeditions that followed.

The Baltic countries have an agreement on declaring the hull of the ferry as a mass grave and on ending any further probes.

I've read a lot about the ferry sinking over the years. It happened to occur just a few days after my first visit to Estonia, and has been a frequent topic of discussion with my Estonian friends (none of whom had relatives on the ferry). Conspiracy theories swirl around the sinking, some sounding James Bond-ish, with secret agents using the ferry to bring back equipment purchased from the ex-Soviets. Encouraging the conspiracy theories are some acknowledged intelligence activities on the S. S. Estonia, including some that remain classified and therefore undisclosed. Wikipedia has a good article on the incident and its aftermath, with many links. City Paper (an Estonian publication) has a good chronology. Another interesting article that I've published on my blog is available here.

If you find yourself still curious about the sinking of the S.S. Estonia, try googling "estonia ferry sank 1994"; that got me 11,900 hits when I tried it this morning. That should cure anyone's curiousity!

Click on the photo for a larger view of the photo. More photos of the monument are available on my personal web site (scroll down toward the bottom of this page).

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