Risto Ojassaar’s Story



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"The Estonia’s bow visor locking devices failed due to wave induced impact loads, creating opening movements about the hinges….The visor attachments were not designed according to realistic design assumptions."

The Sinking of the MS Estonia:
A Chronology of the Disaster

 Courtesy of the Estonian Maritime Museum


   Whenever they saw it sailing off the coast, many Estonians remember being overcome by a feeling of pride. The huge, white ferry with its name ESTONIA emblazoned on the side, was the newest and largest ship in the nation's fleet. For many, the German-built ship-acquired in early 1993-was a fitting symbol of the country's new self-confidence. It was this ferry that carried many Estonians on their first trip outside the bounds of the former Soviet empire. There was an anecdote during Communist rule about how a white ship would one day come and deliver the nation from tyranny, and many said-only half in jest-that this was the white ship they'd been waiting for.
         So when news broke in the early morning of September 28, 1994 that the giant, 15,000-ton Estonia had sunk to the bottom of the Baltic Sea with hundreds of people trapped inside, it seemed like a cruel joke. It just couldn't be true.
       But it was true-terribly, undeniably true. As the details of the accident trickled in, most people in this nation of 1.5 million couldn't avoid being touched by the tragedy. Over the years, almost everybody had taken the Tallinn-Stockholm ferry at least once or twice; if they didn't take the ferry regularly themselves, most people knew someone who did. So as Estonians huddled around radios to listen for the names of those listed as dead or missing, it wasn't a question of if they knew any of the victims-it was a question of how many they knew.
       For many Estonians, especially for survivors and relatives of the 852 people who died on the Estonia, the pain and trauma of those days has not completely worn off. Evelin Tomson, of the victim support group Memento Mare, says many relatives, especially those who lost children on the Estonia, are still trying to cope. "For many of them," she says, "that night will always be the centerpiece of their lives."
       While investigators concluded that a badly designed bow door was the primary cause of the accident, the events of that fateful night are still not fully known. They probably never will be. Too many of the principles involved, including all the officers on the bridge, did not live to tell their versions of what happened. Over the coming years, the story of the Estonia is likely to take on a life of its own. Theories on why it sank-like one already circulating, that the ship hit a Russian sub-are likely to become even more varied and farfetched. Like with the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the sinking of the Titanic, so many aspects of the Estonia tragedy are probably destined to become the stuff of legend and fantasy.


Much of what is known about the accident has been reconstructed from accounts of survivors. The following chronology, compiled by CITY PAPER-The Baltic States, draws on a wide range of sources, including interviews with some survivors. It also incorporates findings of the international investigative committee, which recently released its final, 800-page report on the accident.


18:30 September 27, 1994 - Passengers begin gathering at Tallinn Port, Terminal B. Some lug heavy suitcases and others carry bags stuffed with souvenirs. Among those making their way onto the building-sized Estonia: 56 retirees on a group excursion, 21 teenagers from a Bible school and most of the city council from the Estonian town of V�ru. A few ticket holders are running late and arrive on the ship just as the doors swing shut. 989 passengers-mostly Swedes and Estonians-are aboard, including 189 members of the all-Estonian crew.

19:15 - As the Estonia leaves port, the skies are gray and the winds stiff. Still, the weather is no worse than on dozens of other trips. Many passengers settle into their cabins or wander around the huge luxury ferry. Some head for duty-free shops to stock up on well-priced beer, cigarettes and chocolates. Others take motion-sickness pills, just in case.

20:00 - The ship is still close enough to land. Seas are choppy, but not rough enough to spoil the good cheer. In the Baltic Bar, liquor flows. There's live music and some, undeterred by the swaying ship, take to the dance floor. Others try the sauna and swimming pool below deck.

21:00 - The ferry sails into stormy weather. Some of the waves churning in the gray Baltic top six meters-large enough to engulf a house. Many passengers, some of them getting sick, retire to their cabins below.

23:00 - The ship is approaching the halfway point on its 350-kilometer journey. The seas are becoming rougher. Nonetheless, a dance group goes ahead with its scheduled performance.

00:30 September 28 - The heavy swaying of the ship forces the band to stop playing; the rocking motion keeps many passengers awake.
       Risto Ojassaar, a dancer who just finished performing, heads to a bar on an upper deck to unwind. Peering through a port window, he sees some waves that appear to reach Deck 8. For the time being, he's enjoying the spectacle: "I loved sea storms," he later explained. "I thought, 'Oh, look at that wave! This is great!'"

00:55 - The first in a series of events that leads to the sinking of the Estonia. Weak, poorly constructed attachments on the 50-ton bow door, or visor, snap under the weight of unusually powerful waves. Many passengers, including one crew member doing a routine inspection on the car deck, hear a metallic bang coming from the area of the bow door-which is meant to open while the ship is in port, allowing cars to drive on and off the ferry. No one, however, suspects the bow door has just broken. The seaman on the car deck reports the sound to the bridge and examines the inner part of the bow. He sees nothing out of the ordinary and doesn't hear the sound again. He assumes everything is fine.

1:00 - With the ship traveling at normal speed, around 14 knots, the giant bow door is taking the full brunt of oncoming waves. Unbeknownst to anyone, the already crippled bow door is beginning to break completely off. Officers on the bridge do not appear alarmed by the noise that was reported only minutes before.
       In the Pub Admiral, on Deck 5, a member of the staff is leading a karaoke competition. It was scheduled to end at 1:00, but the leader of the sing-along says they'll continue for another 15 minutes, "since everyone is having so much fun."

1:05 - The visor continues to be hammered by unrelenting waves, and the attachments now fail completely. As it breaks loose, the visor flaps in the raging sea, sawing through steel plating behind it. It makes contact with a critical inner door, the last barrier between the car deck and the sea. As long as the inner door stays on, the ship shouldn't sink. But the swinging visor also breaks the locks on the inner door, which, in turn, falls slightly forward.
       While most passengers have no idea that anything is amiss, some are awakened by noises from the bow. A few-especially those who've been on the Estonia before-are disturbed enough by the sounds to leave their cabins.
       On the bridge, another report comes in about banging and creaking near the bow. The crew member who heard the initial bang is ordered to go back down and examine the car deck once more.
       With reports of mysterious sounds from the bow, investigators later say that the crew should have slowed the ferry's speed as a precaution-a move which might have averted disaster. But officers on the bridge apparently do not believe there's reason to think anything is seriously wrong. The Estonia does not slow down.

1:10 - With the inner door now jarred slightly open, water begins seeping onto the car deck. Via short-circuit TV, a crewman in the engine room sees some water. He believes it's rainwater and calmly switches on pumps to dispel it. Investigators later note his failure to inform the bridge about what he sees.
       When the pumps become overwhelmed, the engineer heads to the car deck. To his horror, the water reaches his knees.

1:15 - The catastrophic moment on the ill-fated Estonia: The huge bow door now rips away from the ship completely and crashes into the sea, bouncing off the ship's bulbous bow-which extends out from the ship just below the water line. Many passengers hear the noise, which some later describe as the sound of a sledgehammer striking and then reverberating through the hull. One anxious passenger in the Pub Admiral tells his companions, "We've hit an iceberg!"
        As it falls off, the bow door snags the inner door and, in one fell swoop, flings it wide open. Like an enormous whale with its mouth open wide, the Estonia now lunges straight into the waves as if it were trying to swallow the sea in one or two terrific gulps. Almost immediately, with tons of water rushing onto the car deck, the ship lists dramatically to starboard by 15 degrees.
       Lying on his bed in a mid-deck cabin, Risto Ojassaar is thrown on his back by the force of the list. He tries to convince himself that everything is fine: "I thought, 'Okay, now the ship has tilted and it will tilt back.'"
       On the bridge, the seriousness of the situation is becoming clear; but the ship's officers still don't understand exactly what is happening and why. They are still operating with insufficient information. They cannot see the bow door from their line of sight, and apparently do not know that the visor has been torn off. Panel lights on the bridge are green, falsely indicating that both the bow door and inner ramp are locked in place. There's confusion on the bridge. An alarm is still not sounded-an oversight that investigators say later may have prevented many more passengers from saving themselves.
       The seaman instructed to pinpoint the source of the metallic sounds never makes it to the car deck. When he arrives at the lower decks, he can't squeeze by panicked passengers streaming up the narrow stairway. Some passengers scream that there is water on Deck 1. The crewman falls down; sprawled on the floor, he radios the bridge to tell his superiors what passengers are saying about incoming water.
       Alarmed by the reports of water inside the ship, those at the helm know they have to do something fast-but they don't seem sure about what. They quickly reduce the ship's speed and decide to turn to port, positioning the listing side of the ship flush with the wind and the waves. They hope that this maneuver will counteract the list, that the wind and waves will push the ferry back over to an even keel. But, while they probably could not have known it, this is a fatal miscalculation. With the ship tilted toward the furious sea, the waves can now reach lower-level windows and doors, blasting them open. Now, water is flooding through the accommodation decks as well as through the bow door. The sea is spilling into the ship much faster than before, at about 20 tons a second.
       The ship lists further starboard. It's now clear to everyone that something is seriously wrong; some of the crew now realize that the Estonia is going down. There is widespread panic. Many passengers are shouting to others that they should head for the lifeboats.
       Risto Ojassaar has to grab the sides of his cabin door to pull himself upward and through the opening. In the hallway, passengers, many dressed only in their underwear, head for the main stairwell. Ojassaar heads that way too, but the director of his dance group grabs him, shouting: "No! This way!" Because of the severe tilt, she figures that only side stairs would lead them safely out. Said Ojassaar later: "She saved my life."
       In the casino, cards and gambling chips fly across the room. Slot machines topple over and bounce off the walls. In Cafe Neptunas, on Deck 5, furniture, glass and china crash down from shelves around the bar. The list is so severe, some passengers lose their footing and slide into the bulkhead.

1:20 - The ship engines have stopped, virtually sealing the fate of the Estonia, which is now completely at the mercy of the Baltic Sea. Vehicles on the car deck begin crashing against the walls. The ship is jerking and rolling even farther starboard, and water is pouring through accommodation decks. Many passengers have already drowned. By now, those on the lower decks have practically no chance for escape; the angled stairs are virtually impassable. Too many people are packed in the hallways.
       In the Pub Admiral, the bar dislodges, sliding across the floor and crashing into the opposite wall. People jump behind couches to avoid being crushed. Those in the bar struggle to get out; some of them get a running start and leap toward the door. Others form a human chain and attempt to help one another up toward the exit.

1:22 - The Estonia sends out its first SOS: "Mayday...Estonia," says a worried but steady voice, which is heard by other ships in the area. "We have listed 20 to 30 degrees and have blacked out." An alarm is finally sounded. A woman's frail voice is heard over the intercom. She speaks only in Estonian. "Alarm, alarm," she says. "There is an alarm on the ship." By now, there's so much noise and screaming, many passengers can't even hear the alarm. Minutes later, an officer gives his final communiqu� to ships nearby: "Yes, we have a problem here now, a bad list to starboard...Really bad, it looks really bad here now." Someone else on board the ship hears a crewman say, "We are sinking!"
       Water is engulfing the entire ship. Risto Ojassaar strains to get up a side stairway. At one point, he falls against a glass door. When he looks down, water is rushing in from below. Exhausted, he finally emerges onto the outer deck. He sees no one else exit behind him. Ojassaar explained later: "You had to be in good shape to make it up the stairs. Most were not."
       Before having a chance to don life jackets, Ojassaar and his dance director are swept off the ship by a wave, and they are separated. Ojassaar falls into the icy Baltic, plunging so deep into the water he doesn't think he'll make it back to the surface. "I thought, 'I don't have any more air. I'm going to give up now,'" he recalled. "Then I got a second wind." Popping up at the surface, he sees many life jackets in the water, but nobody in them. He climbs into a nearby raft. His friend's body is later recovered from the sea.
       The ferry keeps tilting further and further-60, 70, then 80 degrees. Inside the ship, floor tiling and carpets are giving way, making it even more difficult to make an escape. As the ship tilts, some lose their grip and are killed, falling from one side of the ship to the other. Chairs, tables and shelves tumble down the staircase, splashing into seawater filling the ship. Some passengers sit or stand in stunned silence, frozen in fear.
       In Cafe Neptunas, a mother and her adult son climb up the floor, which is now like scaling the sides of an upright building. They pull themselves upward by the legs of tables bolted to the floor. As the son reaches the doorway, his mother, still clinging to a table below, tells him she cannot go on. He begs her to try, but she has no more energy. Her son later manages to save himself.
       People are jamming behind doorways. Passengers must wait for them to slowly file through exits one at a time. One survivor later recalled how he had to shake people crowding the doorway, prying their fingers from handrails and yelling into their ears to keep moving.
       The ship's spacious foyer is especially treacherous. As the ship lists, passengers are flung violently against its walls, injuring and killing some. Traversing the foyer from the stairs to the main exits is like scaling a cliff. One survivor is leading his parents and girlfriend across the foyer. After struggling to reach the other side, he looks back: his mother, father and girlfriend are still clinging to the stairway railing. Trapped, they scream at him to go on, to save himself.

1:30 - The ship leans so far to one side, the bridge-normally the highest point on a ship-is almost touching the surface of the sea. By 1:35, the ship is listing almost 90 degrees. It's virtually on its side. With half of the bridge submerged, the chart-room clock stops.
       Passengers have had roughly 15 minutes to save themselves. Fewer than 300 have managed to get out. Some 750 people are trapped inside, where there are loud crashing noises and hissing sounds; some passengers still inside the ship scream for life jackets. No one else makes it out of the Estonia alive.
       The moon illuminates the outer deck as passengers and some of the crew scramble for life jackets and rafts. Cutting lifeboats free from the ship is difficult and many life jackets are either too large or too small. Inflatable life rafts are difficult to open and desperate passengers strain to read instructions on the raft containers. Some who managed to get out are drunk, others seem despondent and won't move to put on life jackets. With the ship almost completely on its side, some panicked passengers are assured by others that a ship as big as the Estonia will at least remain afloat, that it couldn't possibly sink.

1:40 - Many people are stranded on the upturned hull. As it turns over, they run in place, as on a rolling log, to avoid falling. The water is creeping up from below as if, in the words of one survivor, "to fetch people one by one". The ship is sinking quickly now. There is no time for launching rafts in any organized manner. Many are simply flung into the water by the rolling action of the ship. Those lucky enough to get into rafts try to help pull others aboard; but the sea is rough and continues to wash people overboard. One witness said he had the sensation that  waves were purposefully exchanging people, tossing some off his raft and sweeping others in. Some don't have the strength to climb in and simply cling to ropes around the rafts. One man clinging to a raft remembers others in the water desperately clawing at his legs and back.

1:50 - From his raft, Risto Ojassaar looks back. He can't believe his eyes: the huge, white ferry slips beneath the waves like a submerging whale. It goes stern first. Its front points upwards from the sea. Many passengers and crew in life rafts notice that the bow door is missing. They also see people still clinging to outside railings on the ship, not letting go and then going down with the ship. As it goes down, thousands of bubbles shoot up from below. The Estonia eventually settles 70 meters on the sea floor.
       Hannu Seppanen hugs a raft in the pitch-black night. Right before the Estonia goes down, he hears women scream. Others recall children crying out. As the ship goes under, the sound of screams is followed by a sudden, eerie silence.

2:00 Over the next few hours, those in the water die from hypothermia, as do some in the waterlogged rafts. Survivors in rafts battle winds up to 90 km/ph. Many are repeatedly blown into the water and have to fight their way back in. Others bail ice-cold water out of their rafts; some use shoes to scoop up the water.
        Ojassaar and two others in his boat stand knee-high in water. If they sit down, they figure they will freeze to death. Said Ojassaar: "Cold water makes you feel so numb and comfortable. That's the feeling you get right before you die."
       The first rescue vehicle, the passenger ferry Mariella, reaches the scene of the accident at 2:12-about 50 minutes after the first distress call. With great difficulty, crew members from the Mariella manage to pull a dozen people from the water. The rest continue to drift in the stormy seas and wait for helicopters.

3:00 - Helicopters arrive. Many, however, are ill-equipped. When rescue teams try to lift the waterlogged boats from the water, some cables snap and rafts plunge back into the sea. Some passengers, assuming they were finally saved, die while helicopters fly back to home base for repairs.
       As news of the tragedy breaks on shore, people rush to harbors in Tallinn and Stockholm. One Estonian woman stands near the docks in the Estonian capital clutching a teddy bear. "My husband and son were on their way to Sweden," she says. "My son left his teddy bear behind."
       Waiting to be rescued, Risto Ojassaar tries to avoid thinking about his wife and child. He can't bear to think of their agony as they try to find out whether he is alive or dead.
       In many rafts, people huddle together to keep warm. One man, who fled ship without any clothes at all, stands in the center of his raft, holding a canopy overhead for four hours. In other rafts, passengers hold the heads of injured companions, keeping them from drowning in the waterlogged rafts. On another raft, one man screams for hours, invoking the name God, while others keep asking him to be quiet.

9:00 The last of the 137 survivors, including Risto Ojassaar, are rescued. Pilots express frustration at finding so few survivors. "We saw about 40 life rafts," said one. "Most of them were empty."
        In Estonia and Sweden, some relatives receive good news. Lyudmila Roden gets a call from her husband Ervin, a crew member. "I've been on the phone all morning talking to my friends and relatives," she says to reporters. "I'm so happy to tell them he's alive." For the majority, telephone calls only confirm their worst fears.
       In total, just 94 bodies are recovered. Most victims are trapped inside the Estonia and cannot be recovered. Most of the survivors of the accident are young men; women, children and the elderly stood little chance. Out of 11 passengers under the age of 12, none survived.
       The final death toll: 852.

October 20, 1994 Bodies of Estonians recovered at sea are returned to Tallinn. At a solemn sea-front ceremony, trucks draped with black ribbons roll off a white ferry carrying 38 caskets. Ships in the area sound their foghorns as a sign of respect. Trucks bearing coffins drive out of the harbor over sheets of spruce branches laid out on the road. Explains one Estonian official: "It is an Estonian tradition. The branches are meant to soften the way to a person's final resting place."

December 3, 1997 In its final report on the accident, Swedish, Finnish and Estonian investigators point the finger at Germany's Meyer Werft shipyard, which built the Estonia 20 years ago. Said the report: "The Estonia's bow visor locking devices failed due to wave induced impact loads, creating opening movements about the hinges. The visor attachments were not designed according to realistic design assumptions." Investigators stop short of blaming the crew. But they suggest that crew members may have been slow in exchanging information at a time when it still might have been possible to save the ship.

-compiled and written by Eve Tarm and Michael Tarm



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