Do 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.
On 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.
Officially, 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.
As 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.
If 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.