The captain vanishes: who sunk the Estonia?

imageDo you remember the sinking of the cruise ferry Estonia in September 1994 or have heard of it? This disaster in the midnight hours of a stormy Autumn morning in ice cold waters grabbed global headlines. We in the UK and other countries remember it for being a very sudden dark-of-night disaster with echoes of Titanic yet ultimately we were told it was down to a mix of mechanical and human error once the final investigative reports were published. For many in the Nordic countries intimately involved however, there was more to this than met the eye, especially when 12 known crew member survivors, including a senior Captain on the Bridge at the time…disappeared without a trace in the aftermath and still no-one knows what happened to them to this day.

I remember this disaster being reported. I even had nightmares about it afterwards but I never knew the conspiracy theories that emerged afterwards among the grieving and angry people of Scandinavia in the immediate aftermath that continue to this day.

The Estonia was the pride of the civilian merchant fleet of the newly independent former Russian-ruled state of the same name. Estonians have always been westward-leaning toward Europe and more particularly toward Scandinavia of which they consider themselves to be first cousins if not quite blood brothers. The Estonia played a key role in re-establishing trade and cultural links with Finland and Sweden in particular following release from the Russian harness after the Soviet collapse.

imageOn 28 September 1994, Estonia was en-route linking the Estonian capital Tallinn with its Swedish counterpart, Stockholm. 803 passengers boarded the ship, mostly Swedish nationals, attended to by a primarily Estonian crew of 186. Estonia was a RO-RO (roll-on, roll-off) ferry with opening bow and aft to enable road vehicles quick and easy boarding and departure. The ship left Tallinn at 19.00 and was leaning slightly to port due to poor cargo distribution, or so it was reported. It was an overnight crossing and the ship was not due into Stockholm until around 09.30 the next day. By the time disaster struck at around 01.00, most of the passengers who had paid for sleeper cabins had retired for the night. A loud bang was heard, later understood to be the bow visor opening and being ripped off leaving the ship open to the icy Baltic Sea, which duly flooded in causing the Estonia to list severely. By 01.30, the ship had rolled over by 90 degrees causing the cars and lorries on the vehicle deck to tumble to the port side and thereby sealing the fate of the vessel. By 01.50 the Estonia had sunk without a trace in under an hour with the loss of 852 of the 989 souls on board. Such was the speed and severity of the disaster that only the fittest and luckiest managed to make it out, often by having to climb like gymnasts through the inverting ship. Most of the women, children and elderly on board perished.

imageOfficially, the disaster was attributed to the failure of the bow door against treacherous sea conditions and that the ship was built for coastal waters and so should not have been operating in open sea. The crew were also blamed for running the vessel too fast in deadly conditions. Estonia’s sister ship, also a RO-RO, suffered a similar incident with her bow door, though in much calmer sea conditions. Sweden had suffered the most out of the disaster with 501 fatalities while Estonia, also grieving 285 losses, faced wounded national pride at the sinking of its flagship and symbol of newly found independence from Russia. In all, 17 countries lost citizens to the Baltic Sea that night. It was in Germany, however, that the conspiracy theories first started to emerge soon after the disaster that quickly took root right across the Nordic and Baltic states. Germany became involved in the post-disaster investigation as the country which had built the Estonia and it was a German magazine, the New Statesman, which was the first to publish an article claiming that laboratory tests undertaken in Germany indicated evidence of a deliberate explosion on board. The article also implicated the Swedish, British and Russian governments in a conspiracy to cover up the ‘truth’ that there was an intelligence operation active that night to smuggle Russian military hardware out via Estonia to Sweden and then the UK on board. No statements were ever made by the three incriminated governments to confirm or deny the rumours and the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing refuted the New Statesman’s claim entirely.

imageAs with all conspiracy theories, once they take root they tend to stay and grow. In 2004, ten years after the disaster, a former Swedish customs officer went on Swedish national TV to claim that he knew the Estonia had been used to transport military equipment. Amid public outrage in both Sweden and Estonia, the Swedish government was eventually forced to confirm that the Estonia had indeed been used on two occasions that same month, September 1994, to transport non-explosive military hardware but not on the night of the tragedy. This only served to harden the resolve of the conspiracy theorists and deepened doubt among the general population where speculation as to whether dangerous material was on board which may have caused the disaster was rife. In Estonia, however, a far more sinister theory began to capture public imagination: was the sinking of the Estonia a deliberate act by Russia’s KGB to thwart an Anglo-Swedish intelligence operation and exact retribution on Estonia for its treachury in leaving the Soviet Union?

Prior to the revelations of clandestine shipments of military equipment on the Estonia, the Swedish government had already enraged its population and those of other affected nations by blocking all attempts to mount a salvage operation or to recover the entombed bodies of the dead. They spurned all international offers for assistance in this and instead hired a Dutch company to encase the wreck in concrete as they had declared it a national cemetery.

imageIf there was anyone who could cast light on the truth of the conspiracy theories of that night it would be anyone who was on the ship’s Bridge and one such man is reported to have survived: Captain Avo Piht. Captain Piht was not in command of the ship on the night she sank but was travelling to Sweden as a guest crew member to sit an exam that would enable him to steer the Estonia into Stockholm harbour on future voyages without taking on board a local harbour pilot. He was a senior captain of the Estline Marine Company and was licenced to take command of the Estonia. He would have had access to the Bridge as guest of the Captain and would have been the second most senior seaman on the Estonia that night: Captain-in-Charge, Arvo Andresson, went down with his ship.

The 138 survivors were transported to hospitals in Sweden and Finland. Captain Piht was cared for in Finland’s 2nd city, Turku. Several survivors attested to having seen the captain as did Bengt-Erik Stenmark, security chief of the Swedish Maritime Administration who, it was reported by Reuters, told them that Captain Piht had been interviewed by the international investigation committee. The German TV channel ZDF also broadcast a video clip purporting to show Captain Piht and other Estonian crew members arriving in Turku. According to the New Statesman, German Intelligence officers confiscated the video shortly after broadcast. Waiting for news of her husband back in Tallinn, Mrs Piht was told that her husband had survived, was in Finland and would be home with her soon. He never arrived and she has never seen him again to this day but The Independent reported in the immediate aftermath that Mrs Piht also recognised her husband in televised video clips of survivors arriving in Turku. Captain Piht, the Chief Engineer and 10 other surviving crew members were reported never to have been seen or heard from again.

So that’s the story and the theories. As I searched around the web for any credible news brand with an authoritative take on this I couldn’t find any. If you Google around this topic you will be soon drawn to a plethora citizen blogs that claim and speculate and create a ‘what if’ cloud you can’t possibly see through. I buy the faulty bow visor on the Estonia as a major cause of the disaster. Do I buy the Anglo-Swedish military intel op? Well, while Sweden is not yet a NATO member, it has always co-operated with the Western alliance and Estonia was an aspiring member and former Soviet puppet. Their intel on Russian military technology still on Estonian soil will have been of immense interest to western defence chiefs and our own SIS (formerly MI6).

The disappearances of the 12 Estonian surviving crew and Captain Avo Piht…if true…is most intriguing of all. Do such things happen? Apparently so. Go Google ‘extraordinary rendition’ Sweden is known to have used this measure when dealing with suspect terrorists. Would they use it on a new, pro-Western ally such as Estonia? If so…what did they have to hide? Authorities have poo-pooed the video footage that claimed to show Captain Piht alive and well in Finland as mistaken identity and that he drowned that night in September. Could his wife have mistaken footage of her own husband?

Whatever the truth, the Estonia conspiracy theories will continue to rumble on along with those of 9/11, MH370, Diana and JFK. We may never know for sure what truly happened that fateful night.

The Tower – movie review

imageIf, like me, you like action/adventure/disaster movies but are a tad bored with what’s been coming out of Hollywood lately, then maybe try this. This is a South Korean take on Irwin Allen’s 1974 all A-List classic The Towering Inferno (Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Fred Astair, William Holden). It’s in Korean with English subtitles, yet despite that I found this particularly gripping and I am the worst person I know for using the skip forward function on any media player. I never skipped forward once. The movie was released in 2012 and is available now to rent or buy on Google Play (£3 rent and well worth the splash).

If you are a fan of the original film, you will find all the imagekey elements there: dodgy builders and architects, overly ambitious bosses, a VIP party miles high on the top floors, scenic elevators, exploding water tanks, heroic firemen, love interests and tons of fire, explosions and mass panic. This is a deconstructed Apple Pie of a movie. Just as arty chefs nowadays can take a culinary classic and rework and deliver it looking nothing like the original it’s based on yet with all the ingredients in place, that’s The Tower.

imageEssentially this is a disaster and rescue movie based on the original but with echoes of Die Hard 1, The Poseidon Adventure, Speed and 9/11. Instead of one tower in distress here, you have twin towers (geddit?). The special effects from start to finish are stunning, realistic and evidently not cheap. This movie has a big feel to it.

No point me mentioning the cast as unless you are a film buff imageof the freakiest kind. Any readers I may have are very unlikely to have heard of any of them, yet I found the cast and especially the leads completely engaging and thoroughly watchable. The two lead females (one adult and one child) are particularly noteworthy.

imageThere is an attempt at humour in the film, which because I’m not Korean I didn’t really get. The hapless and disaster-prone chef delivers some of these elements (don’t worry…this is not a chip pan drama). The rest is provided by a family of evangelical Christians who pop up now and then like when they are praying for a tsunami to put out the fire while trapped in their penthouse swimming pool unaware that the Firemen are about to blow up the huge water tanks on the floors directly above them. The film appears to be respectful of the characters but could also be interpreted as taking the piss. Why that should be? Well, if you didn’t know South Korea has a huge evangelical Christian population with churches that meet in giant sports stadia that still can’t accommodate all their congregations in one sitting and they may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

If you are going to punt £3 on renting this, just bear with the imageslowish start but that does get you engaged with the central characters in the classic style of all good disaster movies. Self-sacrifice for the good of others is a recurring theme throughout the movie from several characters though interestingly not from the Happy Clappies, which further makes me think they are caricatures who are being gently mocked rather than play a key part in the drama…apart from one of the Firemen, that is.

Yes, I would watch this again. Probably will have to as when I searched for the original Towering Inferno, which is what I was planning to view, it is nowhere to be found among Google Play’s extensive library.

The Tower is rated 15.

Click to view trailer.

Hidden London: St. Pancras

imageI was in London recently for a meeting. Inner London and not the north-west outskirts where I live. It's a place I sort of know. Usually it's a place you pass through to central London and out again or else bound for one of the gateway train stations linking to the Midlands and North or else France and the Continent and used by millions of rail travellers each year: Euston, King's Cross and St. Pancras.

Opposite my appointment is a London landmark I've passed manyimage times but never paid attention to until now. It's an incredible architectural Grade I listed building and once the second most expensive of its kind constructed in London after St.Paul's Cathedral in its time. Across from Euston and choking in the maelstrom of heaving traffic and London's regular push'n'shove it is only 'hidden' because everyone is too busy to notice it. It is the parish church of St. Pancras and I only just learned about it because I stopped by to take notice.

imageOdd name 'St. Pancras'. Turns out it's Greek and I guess there might have been some clues for me seeing that the building mimics ancient temples on the Acropolis in Athens and I'm an Ancient History graduate. Pancratius was a 14-year-old Greek kid born of Roman citizens in the Empire. His mother died during childbirth and his father died when he was 8. Raised by his uncle in Rome, he converted to Christianity just in time for the murderous reign of Emperor Diocletian and his crackdown on the rapidly rising Christian 'cult'. He was beheaded for his faith in 304AD after refusing several times the Emperor's 'invitations' that he sacrifice to the gods of Rome. Cutting a little known story shorter, his only link to the UK was that parts of his relics were supposed to have made their way to England. St. Pancras Parish in the area around Euston, St. Pancras, Kings Cross and Russell Square are said to be among the first areas of Christian worship in the capital.

The church is not the original parish church (which can still be found hidden behind St. Pancras station). The 'new' parish church dates back to the 1800s and is a classic example of 'Greek Revival' architecture fashionable in northern Europe at the time. The magnificent entry portico is upheld by 6 impressive Ionic columns, again with a nod back to ancient Greece. The building is made of a mix of stone, Portland Stone and terracotta. Unfortunately it does not scrub up well amid the heavy traffic pollution of its surrounds despite several attempts. It was originally built to accommodate a congregation of 2,500.

The iconic star of the external architecture is the side porch imagelooking onto Euston road modelled on the Temple of the Erechtheum on the Acropolis in Athens. This stunning portico is unique among the buildings of the capital and while none of it actually comes from there it is a slice of the magnificence of ancient Athens here in London. An actual Caryatid (the female statues) from the Acropolis sits not too far away housed in the British Museum.

imageIf you are ever at Euston, King's Cross or St.Pancras and massively early for your train (as I invariably am) a visit to this church is highly recommended. For a start, it will give you a tranquil place to sit and rest your feet, beating the distinct lack of seating in all three stations. Stepping into the church from the mayhem of Euston and you step into an oasis of peace and serenity. After post-war renovations, the number of pews was reduced and so the church today accommodates far less than the 2,500 it was originally intended to hold. The pews today are made of English Oak wood and are the really old-fashioned type that can be closed off by a door to the central aisle creating an almost private compartment. Originally this is what the pews were - private compartments that could be rented for a year by wealthy parishioners who always had their own same space to sit together on Sundays. I guess this is where the tradition of 'pew hugging' started that has been the bane of church life ever since.

Despite the distinctly 'high church' feel to it, there is a sense as you look around that there is a real worshiping community there today. Take note of the notice boards and see the faces of today's members. Note the collection point for the food bank donations right at the entrance, the play area for the children, the Hymn books and Bibles. There is also a feeling that the church reaches out to the public around it, Christian or not. Music recitals regularly take place at lunch times as does a 45 minute communal Bible Study on Tuesdays. The impressive crypt, entered via the Caryatid portico also supports local artists and regularly hosts exhibitions.

The church also supports the student Christian Union at the nearby University College London and is the venue for their annual Christmas concert.

Poignantly, St. Pancras New Church also became the focal point of local and national grief and floral tributes to the victims of the 4th bomb (the 'Bus Bomb') to explode on 7/7 just yards away from the church entrance down Upper Woburn Place 10 years ago this year.

Especially adding to the cool, dark reverence of the interior imageare the beautiful stained glass windows, though these were not part of the original plan. The original church was built with clear glass windows in the days when the folk inside would have looked out onto the fields of the now extinct English county of Middlesex, the land of the Middle Saxons (as opposed to the West Saxons in Wessex, the East Saxons in Essex and the South Saxons in Sussex). Only Essex and Sussex now remain among England's shire counties. The stained glass windows visible today were gradually introduced after 1866, some 40 years after the consecration.

imageAs I looked around I was surprised to see on the walls a reference to my home borough of London way up on the north-west edge as being 'in the same county' at one time as the parish of St.Pancras. Again, this is a reference to Middlesex, which was subsumed into the hungry stomach of an ever ravenous and expanding London in 1965. Middlesex once stretched from here in Euston (or the borough of Camden as it is today) all the way north to the borders of Hertfordshire and my home town of Harrow.

Once you have had your time in the church and are feeling aimage little peckish (but still with plenty of time before your train) here's another little tip. Rather than head to the plastic shops and cafes of the stations, exit the church onto Upper Woburn Place, turn left and walk a few yards down the street. On your left you will soon find a small turning, which if you blink you will miss, called Woburn Walk. This tiny little tucked away oasis has a small clutch of cosy cafes for a lite bite and continental coffee, perfect in the Summer for dining al fresco and watching the world go by.


imageLife has changed. Walking a new and un-trodden path. This is like a path I’ve trodden before only it isn’t and I can’t explain why yet because I know where the last path ended and I don’t yet know where this one heads.

He said:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And lean not on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge Him
And He will direct your path.

Proverbs 3:5-6

That’s my aim and compass. The most important word I’m learning in all the above has just three letters.

Solo Traveller

imageI’ve done lot’s of solo travelling across Europe in the last 14 months. 15 cities, 14 of which I’d never visited before and 11 of which in countries I’ve never visited before and I did it Johnny NoMates style. A couple of friends asked me how I do it and they weren’t meaning method, just how I journey to completely new destinations without anyone with me or waiting on the other side. The short and honest answer is that it helps to be a grumpy anti-social independent-minded git.

OK you don’t have to be as seemingly anti-social as me to solo travel and in fact that’s an unfair label to put on myself as when I am abroad alone I’ve been known to be up until almost dawn having conversed all night with people from other countries I’ve never met just learning about their country and culture and politics all aided by several beers. Of the 4 classic personality types I have a ‘melancholic’ persona, apparently, which doesn’t mean I’m about to burst into tears every few hours but does mean that I’m very comfortable being in my own company for extended periods. Here’s my first tip: solo travelling doesn’t suit all personalities, especially those which can’t exist for a nano second without interaction with other human souls. Even in these days of cyber-interaction that is of little comfort if you need others to help you make a decision as to what to wear, do or where to go.

I love city breaks. I love culture, heritage, history, art, archaeology and architecture. I also like the complete unknown. I love to people-watch and time to think, time to absorb and time to eavesdrop on how others do life even though at the very most all I get are snapshots and sound-bytes. Yet you will be amazed at how even these can colour life back home just by seeing how people do things differently. So for me, my choice of travel experience must fit my personality to get the best from it. By comparison, I’m never going to understand for a single moment the attraction of say, Magaluf or ‘Eye-beef-fah’. That’s just me. There’s nothing wrong in those places either for a solo traveller. If that fits you and your personality and you can handle yourself alone in such places safely then go for it.

imageThat brings me to my next tip on solo travel: be savvy and fearless. OK, it doesn’t take a great deal of fearlessness to travel for the first time to Copenhagen or Tallinn or Bratislava on your own, not for me anyway. All are First World cities in developed countries but as ever things can go wrong. I do always pick out a good Guide Book and read up before I go out and take out with me (usually a digital version available offline). Depending on where you are going the guide-book may or may not be able to advise you on where to avoid, but all will counsel on basic common sense: stay in mainstream areas, keep your possessions close at all times and respect local laws. In my case this doesn’t always work. Drop me down in a new city for the first time and once I have the lie of the land, I am drawn to explore mazes of barely navigable back streets and love turning corner after corner as if drawn into the legendary Labyrinth. A word of caution here: I do have an in-built SATNAV in terms of me finding my way around. Not a boast and not 100% reliable but from all my travelling experiences this far in life I would say 90% reliable. You can drop me anywhere without a map and I will find my way around. That said, I do always keep guide books and maps in my shoulder bag even if I never refer to them. Be fearless – there’s no point going if you are just going to stick to the well-beaten tourist path, at least not for me. Use common sense and all your intuition but you will often learn and experience more from your destination when you venture off-piste.

imageNext tip: have a ‘Laissez-faire’ attitude or as the French say ‘whatever’. Now here I’m only speaking about my travels in Europe and not explorations further afield to more exotic locations. I don’t make lists when I pack to travel. I know me. You know you. My default travelling list is in my head on-demand. I’m not travelling with anyone to impress with my much admired fine biceps and 6-pack with a full array of Uniqlo sportswear. I’m out to experience what I set to experience as comfortably as I can. Do you need all those this and thats? The must-have essentials are your travel documents and any important medications. Anything else you forget to take with you, including toothbrushes and underwear can be bought at the airport or abroad. Just a caveat on the underwear thing: if you are prone to ‘go commando’ for comfort’s sake while you fly at any time – and I’m not saying that’s me (ahem) – just remember you have airport security x-ray screening to pass through before you’re in the departure lounge. Ever wondered why those security guys and girls seem so amused in their mundane jobs?

New tip: Never, never NEVER talk to warm, friendly, elderly chatty Australian Grandmothers who might sit next to you on any flight. This is not so much a golden rule for all but just me venting for the loss of my very expensive Dr Beats headphones on a flight back from Finland because the incessant talking of said neighbouring passenger which caused me to forget I’d put them in the seat pocket in front ready to use before I was ambushed and which I forgot in my haste to exit the aircraft.

Last of my big tips for solo travellers…but then you would already know this if you are or will be a solo traveller…be spontaneous. Plan your trip ahead if you want. Google Streetview where you will be staying and the streets around if you want (as I have done) but then when you get there be quite prepared to rip it all up and just pick a road and follow it to see where it goes. Yes, of course as said before, keep your brains inside your skull. Be safe, know what you need to do if you need help from that guide book you have already read and is in your backpack…but DARE to do things you’ve not done before. Stop your life for a moment and take a look at the lives of others. In my travels across Europe so far the differences aren’t huge but they are subtle and it has only served to have enriched my worldview.

My scariest adventure as a solo traveller to date has been a journey I took out of Sheffield one day as a newly licensed driver. Following in the footsteps of Bilbo Baggins I did pick a road – any road – and drove on it. I ended up in some small nondescript town in the British Midlands. To any non-Brit readers just imagine you were heading out into your local countryside just on a whim and ended up in Nowheresville Arizona. Well that was me. Scariest experience was trying to find my way out of that place. Whatever road I chose – with no map in the car – lead me back into NowheresVille where I genuinely believed I would run out of petrol, be drugged, kidnapped and wake up in a cornfield in Iowa. Go figure.

The worst I’ve ever encountered in solo travels have been riding in a bus through the West Bank during an Intifada (Palestinian uprising) with angry youths stoning the bus I’m in or riding a night bus from Tel Aviv to Eilat overnight while trying to sleep with my head against the hard metal handle to the escape window while a sleeping soldier next to me had his Uzzi Rifle digging in my ribs or being strip-searched before being allowed to board a flight to jumping full pelt onto a ferry last-minute in Norway only to realise I didn’t know where it was going, to being almost arrested in Rome as a suspect terrorist. I’m far more worried about being out late with the drunken hoards in my home town than any of all the above.

As I wrote earlier I’m a ‘whatever’ solo traveller I’ll keep on travelling solo in this way while life and God’s good grace permits.