Lessons learned 25 years after Estonia ferry disaster

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Undated file picture of Estline ship MS Estonia.

This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of one of Europe’s worst maritime disasters, when the M/S Estonia ferry sailing from Tallinn to Stockholm sank with the loss of 852 passengers and crew.

Most of the victims were Swedes and Estonians, but ten Finnish passengers were also among the casualties on 28th September 1994.

Many lessons have been learned in the quarter century since the ferry sank 22 nautical miles from the small island of Utö, the southernmost year-round inhabited island in Finland.

Improved maritime communications, better coordination between rescue authorities, more drills and training and renewed safety practices mean that if such an incident were to happen again more lives would likely be saved.

The disaster though, left its ugly mark for newly-independent Estonians.

File picture of Estonian MP Yoko Alender / Credit: MP’s website

A daughter tells her story  

Estonian Member of Parliament Yoko Alender was just 15-years old and living in Stockholm in 1994.

Her father, renowned Estonian musician Urmas Alender was on the ferry that night.

“I was home alone basically, and some of my friends got a call from some of their friends who were from the States I think, because they saw the news earlier. They came over to my house in the morning and asked if it was true that my father was also on the boat” she recalls.

“We went to the harbour, and we were there together with all the people waiting for the lists of survivors. It was still a time of fax machines, so we spent the day there” she tells News Now Finland.

“Towards the evening it was quite clear because the weather conditions were so terrible, that so few people had survived and my father was not among them” she says.

File picture showing liferaft from M/S Estonia

Baltic Sea workhorse 

The M/S Estonia had been a reliable ship as it ploughed the Baltic seas for the previous 14 years on various routes from Finland to Sweden, and later from Estonia.

But on the night of September 28th the ship was already listing slightly to one side when it left port in Tallinn, due to poorly distributed cargo.

When waves hit the ship in the middle of the Baltic Sea and tore open part of the bow door, the sea water came rushing in. Badly-sited video equipment and a bridge with a blind spot meant the deck officers couldn’t even see properly the extent of the damage.

In reality there was likely very little the crew could have done to save the ship even at that point, but ineffective evacuation procedures and a delay in sending out a mayday distress, combined with location systems that had to be activated manually, meant help didn’t arrive as quickly as it might have.

“It was an event which affected basically everyone in Estonia, it is such a small country. So if they didn’t have anyone they knew on the boat, they knew someone who did. I think that everyone in Estonia remembers where they were when they heard the news, if that explains the scale of the catastrophe for the Estonian people” says Yoko Alender.

“Also for the Estonian community in Sweden, they were the ones who travel back and forth and it’s a very small community, so I think all the Estonians in Sweden were affected too” she adds.

File picture of Finnish Border Guard Super Puma OH-HVG which took part in the rescue operation

New cooperation, training and communication across the Baltic

In the quarter century since the disaster a lot has improved in terms of Baltic Sea search and rescue operations.

Finland’s Border Guard now has a mandate to take the lead in planning for, and coordinating, any similar disasters at sea.

“We have developed our equipment, we have very good technology and the systems how we start these kind of operations is automated, we don’t have to use telephones or radios any more to alarm units to the accident scenes” explains Commander Ismo Siikaluoma, Head of Maritime Search and Rescue Operations Unit at the Finnish Border Guard.

The Super Puma helicopters used on the night of the rescue had just been renewed a few years before, and saved 44 people by picking up survivors then performing a dangerous landing on the other ferries which came to the scene, instead of flying back to land.

Since then, the Border Guard has bought two more of the Super Pumas to augment their capabilities, and upgraded the ones used that night 25 years ago.

“We found during the years that this helicopter is very capable in Finnish conditions, including an ice removal system in this helicopter, so it can fly in very bad conditions” explains Commander Siikaluoma.

There’s also much more cooperation and coordination between Finland, Sweden, Russia and Estonia on Baltic search and rescue operations, with regular exercises to practice disaster scenarios.

But with such a busy shipping area, other vessels are still likely to be able to respond faster when they hear a mayday call.

“The fact might be that another merchant vessel might be the first on the scene, and it’s very good that they are there because they can help also, depending on the weather conditions” Siikaluoma tells News Now Finland.

“On the night of the Estonia sinking it was terrible weather, what those other vessels could do was not so much. They probably can put their own life saving equipment to the sea as they did but it’s very hard to get from the sea if you’re very cold, into those rafts, and collect the people from the sea” he says.

Remembering the 25th anniversary 

While Estonian MP Yoko Alender is not marking the ferry disaster anniversary at any official events this weekend, she thinks that enough time has passed for a proper full inquiry, although concedes there’s no particular political appetite for that to happen.

“It’s something, somehow, I didn’t want to make part of my life. But maybe just now at this 25th anniversary somehow it also feels that so much time has passed, that maybe it would be time for all the information to be available to people” Alender explains.

“I’ve also met people just this past year who have been either survivors, or lost someone near, and they have said how they haven’t been able to live one single day without those questions being answered” she says.

“Meeting those people makes you think, for so many people it has still been really difficult, this question ‘why’?”

Scale model of the M/S Estonia / Credit: A. Davey