Remembering the 852 Lost on Estonia

By The Maritime Executive 2019-09-28 18:50:20

The ro-ro MS Estonia sank on September 28, 1994 in the Baltic Sea in one of the worst maritime disasters of the 20th century. 852 lives were lost.

This recount of events is sourced from the investigation published by the Estonian government:

During the voyage, the rolling and pitching of the vessel increased gradually, and shortly before 0100 hrs, during his scheduled round on the car deck, the seaman of the watch heard a metallic bang from the bow area as the vessel hit a heavy wave. Further observations of unusual noise, starting at about 0105 hrs, were made during the following 10 minutes by many passengers and some crew members who were off duty in their cabins.

The locking devices and the hinges of the bow visor failed fully under one or two wave impact loads on the visor shortly after 0100 hrs. The visor worked its way forward and forced the ramp partly open due to mechanical interference between the visor and the ramp, inherent in the design. Water started entering the car deck at the sides of the partly open ramp. The ramp rested for a while within the visor before the visor at about 0115 hrs fell into the sea, pulling the ramp fully open, allowing large amounts of water to enter the car deck. Very rapidly the ship took on a heavy starboard list. She was turned to port and slowed down.

Passengers started to rush up the staircases and panic developed at many places. Many passengers were trapped in their cabins and had no chance of getting out in time. Lifejackets were distributed to those passengers who managed to reach the boat deck. They jumped or were washed into the sea. Some managed to climb into liferafts which had been released from the vessel. No lifeboats could be launched due to the heavy list.

A first Mayday call from the Estonia was received at 0122 hrs. A second Mayday call was transmitted shortly afterwards and by 0124 hrs 14 ship- and shore-based radio stations, including the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) in Turku, had received the Mayday calls.

At about this time all four main engines had stopped. The main generators stopped somewhat later and the emergency generator started automatically, supplying power to essential equipment and to limited lights in public areas and on deck. The ship was now drifting, lying across the seas.

The list to starboard increased and water had started to enter the accommodation decks. Flooding of the accommodation continued with considerable speed and the starboard side of the ship was submerged at about 0130 hrs. During the final stage of flooding the list was more than 90 degrees. The ship sank rapidly, stern first, and disappeared from the radar screens of ships in the area at about 0150 hrs.

Rescue efforts were initiated by MRCC Turku. About one hour after the Estonia had sunk, four passenger ferries in the vicinity arrived on the scene of the accident. Rescue helicopters were summoned and the first one arrived at 0305 hrs. During the night and early morning, helicopters and assisting ships rescued 138 people, of whom one later died in hospital. During the day and on the two following days 92 bodies were recovered. Most of the missing persons accompanied the vessel to the seabed.

The wreck was found in international waters within Finland's Search and Rescue Region, resting on the seabed at a water depth of about 80 m with a heading of 95° and a starboard list of about 120°. The visor was missing and the ramp partly open. The position of the wreck is 59°22,9´ N, 21°41,0´ E. The visor was located about one nautical mile west of the wreck.

Computer-generated pictures illustrating the development of the list and sinking of the vessel. Approximate times, and list in degrees, are shown at bottom right of each picture. Credit: The Joint Accident Investigation Commission of Estonia, Finland and Sweden.

Action by the crew

Two reports of unusual sounds from the bow area were given to the officers of the watch, the first about 20 minutes prior to the loss of the visor. Attempts were made to find the reason for the sounds. The master arrived at the bridge and was present when the second attempt was initiated shortly after 0100 hrs. The speed setting was maintained until the list developed. At about 0100 hrs the speed was about 14 knots, with all four main engines running at full service speed setting.

The visor indicator lamps on the bridge did not show when the visor was detached, and the visor was not visible from the conning position. Nor did the lamps show when the ramp was forced open. The ingress of water at the sides of the partly open bow ramp was observed on a monitor in the engine control room, but no information was exchanged with the bridge.

As the list developed the officers of the watch reduced the speed and initiated a turn to port. They also ordered the engineer to compensate for the list by pumping ballast, but the pump sucked air and, furthermore, the tank was almost full. The officers of the watch also closed the watertight doors.

The first known Mayday call from the Estonia was transmitted at 0122 hrs, and at about the same time the lifeboat alarm was given. Shortly before that, a brief alarm in Estonian was given over the public address system. Just after this, the crew was alerted by a coded fire alarm. No general information was given to the passengers during the accident.

Besides the master and the two officers of the watch, at least the chief officer and the third officer were on the bridge at the time of the distress traffic.

The initial action by the officers on the bridge indicates that they did not realise that the bow was fully open when the list started to develop. The bridge officers did not reduce speed after receiving two reports of metallic sounds and ordering an investigation of the bow area. A rapid decrease in speed at this time would have significantly increased the chances of survival.

Technical matters

There were no detailed design requirements for bow visors in the rules of the classification society concerned, at the time of the building of the Estonia. The Finnish Maritime Administration was, according to a national decree, exempt from doing hull surveys of vessels holding valid class certificates issued by authorized classification societies. The visor locking devices were not examined for approval by the Finnish Maritime Administration, nor by the classification society.

The visor design load and the assumed load distribution on the attachments did not take realistic wave impact loads into account. The visor locking devices installed were not manufactured in accordance with the design intentions. No safety margin was incorporated in the total load-carrying capacity of the visor attachment system. The attachment system as installed was able to withstand a resultant wave force only slightly above the design load used.

A long series of bow visor incidents on other ships had not led to general action to reinforce the attachments of bow doors on existing ro-ro passenger ferries, including the Estonia.

Wave impact loads generated on the night of the accident exceeded the combined strength of the visor attachments. Wave impact loads on the visor increased very quickly with increasing significant wave height, while forward speed had a smaller effect on the loads.

The SOLAS requirements for an upper extension of the collision bulkhead were not satisfied. The general maintenance standard of the visor was satisfactory. Existing minor maintenance deficiencies were not significant factors in the accident.

The Estonia had experienced sea conditions of equivalent severity to those on the night of the accident only once or twice before on a voyage from Tallinn to Stockholm. The probability of the vessel encountering heavy bow seas in her earlier service had been very small. Thus, the failure occurred in what were most likely the worst wave load conditions she ever encountered.

Distress traffic

Mayday calls were received by 14 radio stations including MRCC Turku. At the beginning the Silja Europa took the role of control station for the distress traffic. The distress traffic was not conducted in accordance with the procedures required by the radio regulations. The Estonia's two EPIRBs were not activated and could therefore not transmit when released. 


The time available for evacuation was very short, between 10 and 20 minutes. There was no organised evacuation. The evacuation was hampered by the rapid increase in the list, by narrow passages, by transverse staircases, by objects coming loose and by crowding. About 300 people reached the outer decks. Most victims remained trapped inside the vessel. The lifesaving equipment in many cases did not function as intended. Lifeboats could not be lowered.

Rescue operation

Initially the accident was not treated as a major accident. It was formally designated as such at 0230. MRCC Turku started alerting rescue units at 0126 hrs. One standby helicopter was alerted at 0135 hrs, another at 0218 hrs, and the military helicopters at 0252 hrs. Assistance by Swedish helicopters was agreed at 0158 hrs.

The master of the Silja Europa was appointed On-Scene Commander (OSC) at 0205 hrs. The first rescue unit, the Mariella, arrived on the scene of the accident at 0212 hrs, 50 minutes after the first distress call. The first helicopter arrived at 0305 hrs. Two Finnish helicopters landed survivors on the passenger ferries. Other helicopters carried rescued persons to land. An air co-ordinator arrived to assist the OSC at 0650 hrs and a surface search co-ordinator arrived at 0945 hrs.

The participating vessels did not launch lifeboats or MOB boats due to the heavy weather. Their rescue equipment was not suitable for picking up people from the water or from rafts. Winch problems in three Swedish Navy helicopters seriously limited their rescue capacity. Of the approximately 300 people who reached the open decks, some 160 succeeded in climbing onto liferafts, and a few climbed onto capsized lifeboats. Helicopters rescued 104 people, and vessels rescued 34.

The full accident investigation report is available here.