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Families of Estonia Victims Still Seek Truth

DW staff (nda)
September 27, 2004

Ten years ago, the ferry Estonia sunk off the Finnish coast with the loss of 852 lives. Relatives of the victims have since disputed the original investigation and have called for a new inquiry.

Questions remain over how and why the Estonia sunk a decade agoImage: AP

Ten years ago, during the night of September 27, 1994, the Swedish-owned ferry "Estonia" sank in the middle of the Baltic Sea, taking 852 people to their deaths. And even though an investigation into what was Europe’s worst post-war maritime disaster was closed in 1997, the reasons for the tragedy are still heavily disputed.

Relatives of those who died have criticized the investigation and the fact that no one has been held legally responsible for the catastrophe. The families of those lost are now calling for a new and independent probe.

Enel Makus is a little old lady with warm, yet sad eyes. Ten years ago she lost her daughter and her son-in law in the Estonia ferry catastrophe. The young couple from Tallinn had wanted to spend a weekend in Stockholm – but they never arrived. Both died when the ferry sank off the Finnish coast, leaving two daughters, then aged six and seven. For Enel Makus, who has raised the girls, the night of the disaster is still very present.

"The initial shock and pain have gone, but what remains is a deep sorrow," she said. "Every day I think about the disaster. The first years after the accident I thought about it every single minute and then later perhaps once every five minutes. That’s how it is. It hurts very much."

Stormy sea conditions

At 7 p.m. on that fateful night, the Estonia set off from Tallinn with 989 passengers and staff on board heading for Stockholm. It was a stormy evening and the sea was rough. Most people, including Mikal Öun, one of the few passengers who survived the tragedy, retired to their cabins early.

"I had been sleeping for one or two hours, a huge jolt woke me up. It was as if huge waves were lifting up the ship," he said. "Then I heard several loud bangs as if trucks on the car deck were falling over. Suddenly the ship began to lean to one side. Then I got dressed and left the room."

As Öun stepped out of his cabin, people were screaming and running down the corridors. He was among the few lucky ones who managed to find their way up the stairs to the external deck. Only 137 survived.

Around 1 a.m. ships and radio stations in the area began receiving emergency calls from the Estonia. Only a few minutes afterwards radio contact suddenly broke off. Thirty minutes later the ship had disappeared from the radar screens.

Weak lock blamed

After the tragedy a joint Estonian-Swedish-Finnish commission was established to investigate the sinking of the ferry. Its final report, published in 1997, claimed that the cause of the sinking was the weak locking of the ferry’s ramp. Due to the rough sea the bow doors broke open, flooding the car decks and thus sinking the ship. The Estonia has never been recovered from where it sank off the Finnish coast.

These findings have, however, been heavily disputed ever since. Now, a decade later, there are new calls for an independent probe.

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