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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

800 Feared Dead in Ferry Disaster

About 800 people were feared drowned in the Baltic Sea on Wednesday after an Estonian ferry capsized in stormy seas off the coast of Finland in one of the worst disasters in maritime history.

Rescue services said they picked up 141 survivors and 42 bodies from the freezing water, but hopes of finding more alive faded as night fell.

There were conflicting figures on the number of people aboard the ferry, the Estonia, ranging from 902 to 974. More than half of the passengers and crew aboard the ferry were Swedish while most of the remainder, including the 189-strong crew, were from Estonia. Others aboard were from Finland, Norway, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Britain and Nigeria.

The cause of the tragedy was still uncertain Thursday night, but one crew member taken to hospital said the ferry's loading doors had not been properly closed, allowing water to pour in. A Swedish official said the doors had recently been checked and found unsatisfactory.

The governments of Estonia, Sweden and Finland all declared a day of mourning Wednesday, ordering flags to fly at half-mast.

The ferry was sailing from the Estonian capital Tallinn to Stockholm. It hit stormy seas and 95-kilometer-per-hour winds about 35 kilometers from the Finnish island of Uto, off the country's southwestern coast.

Nearby ships heard a distress signal from the Estonia at 01.24 A.M. local time, according to a spokesman for the ferry operator Estline. But by the time the first rescue services arrived on the scene the ferry had sunk. Estonian authorities said the ship sank quickly, and the final SOS message was: "We are sinking! ... The engines have stopped!" The Associated Press reported.

A massive rescue operation was launched with 26 helicopters from Sweden, Finland and Denmark and some 20 ships. Russian helicopters and naval vessels were also on standby, but the rescue coordinators in Finland said they did not need them.

Ships picked up some survivors and helicopters evacuated others to hospitals in Finland and Sweden. Pitch-black conditions, waves nearly 20 feet high, and strong winds hampered rescue operations.

"We saw about 40 life rafts. Unfortunately, most of them were empty," Swedish rescue helicopter pilot Stefan Carneros told AP.

Survivors suffering from broken bones, hypothermia and shock told reporters that the ship had listed heavily to one side and sank within minutes. Many of the passengers were asleep below deck and had no time to get out.

A crisis center was set up at a port just outside Stockholm, where the Estonia was due to have arrived at 10 A.M. on Wednesday, AP reported. Priests, nurses and psychologists tried to care for the crying relatives who arrived by the dozens. Paolo Thimo, whose wife was aboard, said he feared she had never had a chance, since her cabin was on the lower deck. "I don't know what to do," he said.

Yury Volkov, consul at the Russian Consulate General in Turku, on the southwestern Finnish coast, said in a telephone interview that Finnish television and radio were reporting three versions of what had happened.

According to one theory, said Volkov, "The bow doors had been badly closed which led the ship to take in water during the voyage and finally caused the ship to founder."

That theory was backed up by Anders Linstrom, a Swedish maritime safety official, who told Reuters that the watertight seals on the Estonia ferry ramp had been inspected the day before it sank and were found to be unsatisfactory. It was not clear why no action had been taken to remedy the fault.

The Swedish news agency TT quoted crew member Henrik Sillaste as saying that one of the loading ramps on the roll-on, roll-off vessel was not closed properly and water rushed in.

"We saw that the ramp was not closed properly. There was something wrong. The outer ramp was closed but the inner door was not properly attached," he said.

"Water was forcing its way through. There was so much water on the lower deck that it almost reached my knees." Sillaste said the Estonia capsized soon afterwards.

In 1987, the British car ferry Herald of Free Enterprise capsized and sank after leaving the Belgian port of Zeebrugge with one of its bow doors open. A total of 189 passengers and crew died.

Volkov said other possible causes of the disaster were "the strong storm, with winds gusting at 25 meters per second. Several buses and cars on the cargo deck came free. It caused a strong list and the ship turned upside-down and sank within five minutes."

A third theory was that the ferry capsized after its engines cut out.

"There was a breakdown of the ship's engine which caused its stoppage," Volkov surmised. "The storm turned the ship broadside to the wind. The strong side wind led to the list and then turned the ship over."

Experts agreed that something more than the weather caused the disaster. "This was a totally unexpected accident," Finnish maritime inspector Esa Saari told reporters in the Finnish city of Turku, site of the rescue coordination efforts. "A vessel of this size should have no problem in these winds," AP reported.

Johannes Johanson, director of Estline, said on Estonian national radio that the ferry should not have sunk under any circumstances, Reuters reported. It is "completely mysterious ... in any event, in an accident, the ship should not have sunk," Johanson said.

Karl Gustav Orkarien, traffic manager for Estline in Stockholm, would not comment on the cause of the accident. "We are not speculating at all about what has happened. We have not had the possibility to interview survivors yet," he said.

Late Wednesday a total of 141 survivors had been found, a Turku police officer told Reuters, adding that the number of known dead was 42.

Volkov said preliminary estimates were that four Russian passengers had been rescued but added the consulate was receiving contradictary information all the time about the number of Russians on board.

Vasily Astapchuk, a diplomat at the Russian Embassy in Tallinn, said he had been informed by Estline that six of the passengers were Russian citizens.

Interfax reported late Wednesday that a member of the disaster committee, the Estonian Domestic Affairs Minister Heike Erike, said that 974 people were on board the ferry. An unofficial list distributed by Finnish police put the number of people on board at 964. But Estline's Orkarien said the correct number was 902, including crew, truck drivers and passengers.

Orkarien declined to give the nationalities of the passengers, saying relatives had to be informed first. News reports said passengers included 52 pensioners from one town in central Sweden.

Volkov said the prime ministers of Estonia, Sweden and Finland had met in Turku where a rescue headquarters had been set up.

The governments of Estonia and Finland were discussing which country should launch an investigation into the accident, Jarmo Koponen, press officer at the Finnish Embassy in Moscow said Wednesday. According to Itar-Tass, the Estonian authorities have said they will launch criminal proceedings against anyone responsible for safety violations or causing death through negligence.

Normal practice is for the country in whose waters the ship sank to conduct an inquiry, a spokesman for Lloyds of London said Wednesday. The Estonia went down close to Finland but in international waters.The 15,566-ton, 2,000 passenger ferry, described as "not a big vessel" by the Lloyds spokesman, was run by the shipping line Estline and insured by the Swedish insurers Trygg Hansa with some reinsurance in the London market, the Lloyds spokesman said.