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Wednesday, December 3, 1997 Published at 13:07 GMT


Bow door blamed for Estonia ferry disaster

Empty lifeboat after ferry went down

Design faults and incompetent crew contributed to the sinking of the Estonia ferry in which 852 people died, according to an official report.

The Estonia was sailing from Tallinn in Estonia to Stockholm in Sweden on September 27, 1994, when towering Baltic waves ripped off its visor-style bow door and water poured into the vehicle deck.

The ship capsized and sank off the Finnish coast, trapping most passengers inside. Only 137 people survived the disaster while 94 who managed to leave the 15,598-tonne vessel died in freezing water.

[ image: The wreck after the disaster]
The wreck after the disaster
The final report on Europe's worst post-World War II maritime disaster said the bow door had badly designed locks. It adds that faster reaction by the crew could have increased the Estonia's chances of survival.

But commission chairman Uno Laur said his task was not "to put blame on anyone or apportion liability".

"None of the officers on the bridge survived, and we don't really know what happened."

The Swedish-Finnish-Estonian commission, set up three years ago to look into the disaster, is widely distrusted because of delays in releasing the report and the resignation of its former chairman.

"Officers responded slowly"

The German company that built the ferry, the Meyer shipyard, formed its own commission and was often at odds with the Swedish-Finnish-Estonian commission. Relatives of the victims suspect a cover-up.

The final report, released in Tallinn, concludes: "The [bow door] visor attachments were not designed to realistic design assumptions." It concludes that the door locks should have been five times stronger.

The Estonia, a roll-on roll-off car and passenger ferry, had been ploughing through waves of up to four metres (13ft) and "the failure occurred in what were most likely the worst wave conditions she ever encountered".

[ image: Report concludes that door locks should have been five times stronger]
Report concludes that door locks should have been five times stronger
Reports say while the ship was basically seaworthy and properly manned, it was going too fast and officers responded slowly to noises from the bow.

"A rapid decrease in speed would have significantly increased the chances of survival."

The ship's alarms - warning passengers and crew - did not sound until five minutes after the Estonia began listing heavily. By then, it was difficult for passengers to escape.

Lifeboats could not be lowered

Survivors described how the ferry disappeared under water in "a sea of bubbles", dragging people with it.

"Several people clinging to the ship followed her down. Two witnesses ... saw several people climbing and clinging to the ship's bottom or hanging onto the rail," the report said.

Most victims were trapped inside the boat as they slept in their cabins. About 300 people reached the outer decks and stood a chance of surviving.

But the lifesaving equipment did not work well and lifeboats could not be lowered, largely due to the list. Rescue operations were also hampered.

"New welds weaker than originals"

About 160 passengers managed to stay afloat hanging on to liferafts and capsized lifeboats. Some died from cold and exhaustion and only 137 survivors were plucked from the sea by helicopters and ships.

A separate report commissioned by the ship's builders said the bow door failure was due to poor maintenance and excessive speed.

It said locks were repositioned and new welds were weaker than the originals. It also said the vehicle ramp, which folded up inside the hull to make a watertight barrier, was out of alignment and breached international safety standards.

[ image: Only 94 bodies were recovered from the Estonia]
Only 94 bodies were recovered from the Estonia
The shipbuilders' report added that the watertight door had been leaking for weeks and was plugged by old mattresses. The builders claimed the crew had 40 minutes to save the ship.

Trust in the international commission's work was undermined by the resignation last year of chairman Andi Meister, who said Sweden was withholding information.

In a book published in September, Mr Meister said the shipwreck has been visited and perhaps plundered by unauthorised divers. The ship's navigational computer has never been found, raising suspicion it was stolen, he said.

Relatives want bodies retrieved

Olof Forssberg, head of the Swedish part of the commission, quit this year after admitting he lied about receiving a letter connected to the case. A Swedish expert also left, saying he no longer trusted the commission's work.

The wreck of the ship still contains more than 700 victims and the failure to retrieve bodies for burial has angered families of the victims.

[ image: Gunnar Bendreus:
Gunnar Bendreus: "We are violating the law if we want to visit our relatives out there."
Relatives who believe there has been a cover-up want divers sent down to photograph the wreck.

Gunnar Bendreus, who lost his parents-in-law in the disaster, said: "We want to do it, the shipbuilders want to do it, but none of those sitting on the commission want it.

"They have stipulated we are violating the law if we want to visit relatives out there."

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