Sinking of the MS Estonia

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The MS Estonia was not a ship anyone expected to sink, but it did. How? Why? In this lesson, we'll explore this tragedy and see what happened to the Estonia.

The Sinking of the MS Estonia

Maritime disasters have haunted humans since we first learned how to arrange objects in a way that let us float atop them. Many of the twentieth century's worst disasters occurred during wartime as a result of military action. However, not all shipwrecks are as easy to explain. On September 28, 1994, a passenger ferry called the MS Estonia sank in the Baltic Sea, en route from Tallinn, Estonia to Stockholm, Sweden. 852 people were claimed by the sea that day, more than half of whose bodies were never recovered. It was a terrible tragedy, but how did it happen and why? It's a question as old as sailing itself, and yet the answers always continue to surprise us.

The MS Estonia sank into the Baltic Sea between Estonia and Sweden.

The Disaster

When the Estonia embarked in September 1994, it was a passenger ship with a flawless service record. It had been well maintained, operated by multiple companies, and successfully utilized for nearly 15 years.

On September 28, nearly 1,000 people were aboard the Estonia as it crossed the Baltic Sea. That night, the ship's route took it through a particularly rough storm. Heavy winds rocked the ship as it plowed through 13-foot waves. Of course, ships are built for such conditions. But then, around 1:00 a.m., the unthinkable happened. The Estonia listed onto its right-hand side and parts of its bow broke up. Within about thirty minutes, the Estonia was at the bottom of the Baltic Sea.

What Happened

The sinking of the Estonia happened suddenly and seemingly without warning. The ship barely had time to radio for help before it was submerged, and people were astounded. It was 1994, after all. Things like this weren't supposed to happen anymore.

Official investigations were undertaken by both governments and private sources. There are a number of theories about what caused the Estonia to sink, but the most likely involves the fact that the ship was plowing at full speed through massive waves, while being buffeted from the side by gale-force winds. As a result, the ship began to tilt and its bow visor (a moveable part of the bow meant to protect the ship from waves) broke off. At this point, the ship's crew seems to have turned the ship towards the wind. In theory, this maneuver should have worked to stabilize the vessel, with the wind counteracting the tipping of the boat.

Unfortunately, that's not what happened. The Estonia had already begun to take on more water than the crew must have realized. Their maneuver exacerbated the intake and overwhelmed the vehicle deck, the second line of defense against flooding. As water rushed into the passenger decks below the vehicle deck, the safety glass failed and the harsh sea punched new holes into the hull.

An Estonian memorial to those lost in the sinking of the MS Estonia.

The failure of the ship was one issue, but the massive loss of life was another. The Estonia sank relatively quickly (taking between 30 and 40 minutes), but this still should have been enough time to get everybody off the vessel and onto lifeboats. So, what happened? The Estonia had not been built according to the standards of the International Maritime Organization, which insists that all passenger vessels be designed with easy access to open decks and lifeboats. As the ship tilted, its lack of easily accessible escape routes proved fatal. Only about 137 of 989 people on board were able to get off the ship before it was completely submerged.

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