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1994: Hundreds feared dead in ferry disaster

AUDIO : Sweden in mourning as the Estonia death toll rises

A car and passenger ferry, MS Estonia, has sunk in the Baltic Sea with 950 people on board.

The Estline ferry was sailing from Estonia to Sweden in bad weather and heavy seas when it sent a distress signal saying it was listing heavily.

About 30 people have been rescued, but officials say hopes of finding other passengers alive in the extremely cold waters are fading rapidly.

A crew member who survived the accident has told the BBC he had seen a loading bay door open and taking in water minutes before the MS Estonia sunk.

The last message from the stricken ferry - which was carrying mainly Swedish passengers from Tallinn to Stockholm - was received by the Finnish Coastguard at 0124 BST.

Survivors reported the boat sank within five minutes.

"It is very terrible work but we will do our best"

Rescue official

Helicopters and ships are still searching the area where the ferry went down, but the Finnish Coastguard said weather and sea conditions were terrible and the water temperature was only 8C.

Another rescue official said it was likely they would rescue only a fraction of the total number on board.

"It is very terrible work but we will do our best," he told the BBC.

A Swedish Maritime Safety official, Anders Lindstrom, said he had checked watertight seals on the ferry only 24 hours ago and found they were not safe.

"Had they looked at the vessel they would have found out the port at the front was not acceptable - there was some damage to it," he said.

Mr Lindstrom added there had also been complaints about the crew's ability to seal cargo correctly.

But a representative for Estline defended the shipping company's position at a news conference saying no conclusions should be drawn until a full investigation.

In Context
The total number of dead was finally put at 852 - about half of them Swedes.

The wreck of the Estonia was not salvaged, but sealed, covered in sand and declared an official burial ground.

A Swedish-Finnish-Estonian commission was set up to investigate the cause of the sinking.

Its final report said the accident had been a combination of incompetent crew and design faults in the ferry's "visor-type" front doors.

A rival commission set up by the Meyer shipyard who built the ship said the disaster happened because of poor maintenance and excessive speed.

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