Ferry Sinks: More than 850 Feared Dead

Chicago, IL, (ENN)
September 29, 1994

       With hope fading with each passing hour, families all over Sweden, Estonia, and Finland are anxiously awaiting the fate of relatives that were known to be traveling on the ES Estonia. The ferry, traveling between Estonia and Sweden, inexplicably sank Tuesday at 1:24a.m.(local time). According to the Estonia Foreign Ministry, 1,049 people were onboard the ship as it capsized in 6-foot waves. Finnish rescue services have reported that 844 people are still missing, and that about 140 have been saved from the frigid waters of the Baltic Sea. The bodies of 42 people are said to have been recovered by rescue forces. The ship went down, reportedly within 40 minutes, in an area approximately 25 miles from the Southwest coast of Finland.

In what is being described by Swedish authorities as "the greatest catastrophe for Sweden in modern times", the sinking of the Estonia has roused an intensive investigation into the disaster. Speculation regarding the cause of the tragic incident has centered on the possibility of "faulty" seals on a large ramp that is used to on and off-load cars and people from the ship. A crewman and another eyewitness have both been quoted by various media sources as saying that water was seen coming in through the bow door of the ship. The crewman was quoted by the Cable News Network (CNN) as saying that he was standing in water "up to his knees" at the time the ship capsized.

Representatives of the Estline Company, which operated the Estonia, were quoted by local media services as saying that the vessel sank after it's engines shut-down and it was swept by a "60 foot wave [20 meters]". Weather experts say that the allegation about a sixty foot wave was extremely unlikely, due to the fact that several other ships were in the area and they reported "6 foot [2 meter] waves in the area" with winds at 15mph. Ostensibly, after the wave struck, the ships cargo area filled with water and began to list. Shortly thereafter, according to survivors, the ship capsized.

According to two Swedish safety inspectors, the seals on the ship's cargo doors "didn't look good" when inspected shortly before the calamity. Ake Sjoblom, one of the inspectors, was quoted by a Swedish radio station as saying that the Estonia's crew was notified of the deficiencies, but that the visit that their visit was "only for training" and that it wasn't "a proper inspection". He also said that the seals 'didn't look bad enough to hold the boat back."

Finnish authorities said that the incident occurred in Finnish waters and that it is their responsibility to conduct a complete and thorough investigation of the accident. They said that they would not comment on the actual cause of the deadly tragedy until the completion of the official inquiry. The spokesperson refused to speculate regarding any details of the disaster.

Rescuers have been frantically searching the area of the shipwreck for more than 48 hours. They say that they have been hampered by high winds and heavy seas, almost since they started the search. Several other ships, in the area, have reported plucking victims from the icy waters and turning them over to Finnish Coast Guard helicopters for transport to local hospitals. A massive rescue effort has reportedly been mounted by Sweden, Finland, and Estonia, with helicopters and patrol boats working 24 hours a day in an attempt to save victims in the 50 degree water.

Rescuers and doctors say, however, that they fear that the time has elapsed that would have allowed them to successfully resuscitate those thrown into the cold water. They say that the stricken will have died of hypothermia and exposure by the time of this report. A Coast Guard official said that the human body loses heat quickly when immersed in cold water, and that they have already recovered the bodies of "dozens" of victims who have succumbed to the cold. A Finnish Helicopter rescue pilot reported flying more than 10 hours and not finding anyone alive; his crew did recover the bodies of twenty (20) of the Estonia's deceased.

Doctors treating the few survivors of the Estonia disaster say that it is a "miracle" that anyone survived the incident and subsequent immersion in the chilly water. Those that did survive may have done so by huddling together, in life rafts that were thrown from the ship, as it was going down. A trauma physician from Turku University Hospital said that all of the victims that were brought to his facility were suffering from hypothermia, but that several of them are doing 'extremely well", considering the circumstances. According to one doctor, several of the patients may be released from the hospital soon, with few medical complications. A hospital psychologist said, however, that virtually all of the survivors will suffer from some form of emotional distress surrounding the incident.

Survivors of mass disasters are frequently known to suffer from effects similar to those experienced by soldiers in combat, resulting in what is commonly called a "Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome". Some will undoubtedly require counseling and emotional support following their ordeal in the Baltic's icy waters. Others will even feel guilty that they couldn't help the dead, or do anything meaningful to affect the outcome of the calamity. All in all; everyone connected with the tragedy at sea will suffer some detrimental effect caused by the sinking of the Estonia. Now, as questions are being asked about the cause of the disaster, families, friends, rescuers and victims will begin the grieving process.

Electronic publication with prior permission of Emergency Medical Services Magazine; (c) Emergency Response & Research Institute, 1994. All other rights reserved.

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