Sunk like Estonia

From the BBC:

A Paris court has rejected a claim for compensation over the 1994 sinking of the Estonia ferry.

More than 1,000 survivors and relatives of victims requested €40.8m (£36.6m;$45.8m) from the French agency that deemed the vessel seaworthy and the German shipbuilder.

But the court said the claimants failed to prove “intentional fault”.

The sinking of the MS Estonia killed 852 people, making it one of history’s deadliest European maritime disasters.

The vessel was sailing from Estonia to Sweden on 28 September 1994 when it sank in the Baltic Sea. Most passengers on board the ship were trapped inside after it capsized, while 97 who managed to leave the vessel died in freezing water. There were 137 survivors.

There was always something about that disaster which intrigued me, and I’m not sure what. It might have been that it was the first time I’d ever heard of Estonia and Tallinn: these were names you didn’t really hear mentioned much, even four years after the dissolution after the Soviet Union. This was before the days of Schengen and stag dos; the Baltic states still retained that air of eastern bloc mystique, which was probably the driver of the conspiracy theory that it was a deliberate sinking due to the presence on board of smuggled ex-Soviet military intelligence personnel/secret military equipment (delete as appropriate). There were then rumours that the wreck had been interfered with, and the Swedish government ordered it encased in concrete to prevent anyone finding the truth. I even once met a ship surveyor who claimed some involvement in the investigation and swore the wreck had been physically moved, which he interpreted as evidence of skulduggery. This was a long time ago, and if I believed him then I don’t now. The simple fact is, ferries have always been surprisingly dangerous compared to other forms of transport, mainly due to poor economics, poor maintenance, and crew/owner complacency. I can’t imagine standards in Estonia in 1994 were very high; poor cargo distribution meant the MS Estonia was listing to starboard as it left the port, before the accident with the bow door even happened.

I think what really struck me about the accident is how quickly it unfolded. The ship listed 15 degrees immediately, and fifteen minutes later was at 60 degrees. Twenty minutes later it was at 90 degrees. You can imagine what that’s like, at one o’clock in the morning in September in the middle of the Baltic Sea as freezing water rushes in and the lights go out. Little wonder that out of 989 people on board, only 138 were rescued alive. When in January 2013 I took a ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn during the day, I went out on deck and peered over the edge. That was bad enough. I thought of the poor souls aboard the MS Estonia and shuddered. I still do.

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9 thoughts on “Sunk like Estonia

  1. “Intentional Fault?”
    As in, they failed to prove the builder deliberately set out to build a ferry that was rubbish and didn’t meet regulations? And that the regulatory agency deliberately set out to declare the ship seaworthy even when it wasn’t?

    That was never going to work as a contention. Nobody sets out to cause “intentional fault” that leads to people getting killed except arguably saboteurs/murderers, and under that act of sabotage, that ferry worked perfectly for years so it’s a very strange form of it.

    No-one in these organisations intentionally sets out to do something like that, it just arises through uselessness, institutional inertia. They were never going to win.

    “The simple fact is, ferries have always been surprisingly dangerous compared to other forms of transport, mainly due to poor economics, poor maintenance, and crew/owner complacency.”

    Tim – The Herald of Free Enterprise disaster at Zeebrugge is of relevance here in the form of the idea that front/rear loaded RO-RO car ferries are intrinsically dangerous due to their long, ship length decks. When they get water in them, the water just sloshes from end to end and side to side, so it is no wonder that once the ship has filled beyond a critical mass, the list you mention was fast and the result inevitable.

    Modern “Superferry” RO-ROs like the MV Pride of Hull and Pride of Rotterdam don’t feature a Bow door at all, they are literally so large that they have a turning circle inside them to just drive truck trailers straight back out of the ramp they came in on, further, cars are loaded through a side door that is several stories up in the air.

  2. They seem to have gone to an awful lot of trouble to stop people going near and investigating the wreck.

  3. Rather different from this Korean example

    Oh yes. That whole episode was shameful.

  4. The Herald of Free Enterprise disaster at Zeebrugge is of relevance here

    Indeed, and the New Scientist article I link to is based on that disaster.

    in the form of the idea that front/rear loaded RO-RO car ferries are intrinsically dangerous due to their long, ship length decks. When they get water in them, the water just sloshes from end to end and side to side, so it is no wonder that once the ship has filled beyond a critical mass, the list you mention was fast and the result inevitable.

    Yes, an inch of water is enough to flip it. This can be mitigated against by dividing the car decks, but this increases loading and offloading time. Although in the case of the Herald of Free Enterprise, shutting the bow doors before heading out to see would have probably prevented the disaster.

  5. At the time of the Estonia disaster, I was working for a Marine Engineering company that, among other activities, acted as expert witnesses and investigators of events like this.

    Through their contacts etc. it was quickly known that the cause of the disaster was that the ferry maintained a high speed for the conditions into the advancing waves (reported as 4 to 6 metres – which considering the short reach of the wind, would be very steep). The impact of the waves against the bow dislodged the bow visor (the front of the bow could be raised like the visor of a knights helmet) which with the repeated impacts, failed and fell off.

    The visor was located a good distance away from the hull of the vessel (my memory seems to recall about 10 miles but this cannot be relied on at this remove) which supports the explanation.

    The bow visor was never intended to be fully watertight – its purpose was to shelter the inner, drawbridge like loading door/ramp which DID form a watertight seal. However the inner door/ramp was not intended to take the full force of wave impacts and buckled, allowing water onto the car decks and the free surface effect took over. Try balancing a tea tray on your palm and put a tablespoon of water on it and once the water rushes to one side, it will quickly become extremely unstable. That is what happened in this case (and the Herald of Free Enterprise) which caused the vessel to rapidly and fatally list.

    Had the crew slowed down so that the impact of the waves was diminished, then it is likely that the vessel would have survived.

  6. When I did my civil engineering degree at Manchester Uni (90-94) we studied the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, and ro/ro ferries in general.

    Essentially on a boat you have the centre of gravity and the centre of upthrust. In a normal boat when it lists the centre of upthrust moves further than the centre of gravity and creates a rightening moment which stabilises the boat. Same for a ro/ro ferry…..except when there is water on the decks or the load shifts. Then the centre of gravity moves further than the centre of upthrust does, so it creates a moment that capsizes the boat. Solution would be to separate the lanes on the car deck with a thin steel wall, which ensures the water doesn’t go to one side of the deck.

    Our lecturer at time thought this an inherent design floor in these ferries and there should have been an international law banning the open deck design, due to their being a single point of failure if sailing in choppy/high seas.

    The one saving grace for the Herald was that it capsized over a sand bar so didn’t fully sink.

  7. If it sunk in common law jurisdictional waters, then there would have been no bar on civil damages.

  8. As in, they failed to prove the builder deliberately set out to build a ferry that was rubbish and didn’t meet regulations? And that the regulatory agency deliberately set out to declare the ship seaworthy even when it wasn’t?

    I agree, this sounds pretty dumb.

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