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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sinking Shocks Sweden

STOCKHOLM -- Swedes were stunned Wednesday to wake up to news that more than 500 of their compatriots died when the car ferry Estonia capsized and sank in the Baltic Sea.

Not since Swedes heard on early-morning radio eight years ago that their prime minister, Olof Palme, had been assassinated has the country been plunged into such deep shock.

The death of around 500 citizens -- the exact number is not yet known -- is the worst single event to hit Sweden this century, according to historians. Sweden did not fight in either World War.

Many Swedes are familiar with the dancing, shows and late-night drinking on board ferries that cross from Sweden to Finland or the Baltic states and back again. Duty-free alcohol can be bought, and the trips are affectionately known as "booze cruises."

In a country of only 8.5 million people, a large chunk of the population will know, or know of, one of the victims.

Prime Minister Carl Bildt told a news conference Wednesday that he knew several people who were on the ship.

Sweden's King Carl Gustaf made a rare television appearance to read a brief statement expressing his sorrow.

On breakfast television, where many Swedes caught their first news of the tragedy, a priest sat beside the regular presenter. Priests, relatively absent in secular Sweden, were seen all day on television screens.

The ferry terminal of Frihamn, where the Estonia should have landed, was packed with several hundred people anxious for news of relatives who were on the ship.

Dozens of priests and psychologists counseled the tearful relatives as they waited to find out if their loved ones were among the survivors.