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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ferry Disaster Haunts the Baltic Sea 10 Years On

APA search-and-rescue helicopter circling above an overturned lifeboat from the Estonia ferry in the Baltic Sea on Sept. 28, 1994.
TALLINN, Estonia -- Ilkka Karppala remembers the stormy day before a night 10 years ago when the Estonia sank, killing 852 people in one of the worst maritime disasters in history.

"It was very dark and dismal all day. Bad weather," said Karppala, the Finnish coast guard officer who first heard the ferry's Mayday -- which failed to identify the vessel.

The weather was so bad that it ripped a branch off a cherry tree in his garden as he left for the night shift at the coast guard station in Turku, Finland, which became the base for rescue operations.

"I mentioned the broken branch to my wife and remember saying, 'Anything could happen on a night like this,'" he said. "And what we had thought was impossible actually happened."

The Estonia was headed for Stockholm, Sweden, with 989 people on board when it capsized off the southwestern coast of Finland in the middle of the night.

The disaster shocked a region unaccustomed to such disasters and spawned a host of conspiracy theories, as well as prompting new, stringent safety standards for passenger ferries.

The ferry was carrying Swedish vacationers, Estonian politicians and tourists when waves as high as 8 meters ripped off the 56-ton bow door, letting water gush into the car deck.

The Estonia sank in just 45 minutes, at 1:48 a.m. on Sept. 28, 1994. Only 137 people survived.

Russian reports accused criminal gangs of blowing the ship up as part of a vendetta between drug-dealing cartels.

But an official inquiry, by a commission of Estonian, Finnish and Swedish experts, blamed faulty bow door locks, the storm and human error in its 230-page final report released in 1997.

"We still stand behind these findings. The locks on the visor door were too weak and the speed of the vessel was a bit too fast for the weather conditions," said Kari Lehtola, the retired head of the Finnish investigative team in the international commission. "There was no single cause. And we know much more about maritime safety today."

Poor communications, an inexperienced crew and rescuers overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task were contributory factors. More lives could have been saved if the crew and rescuers had been more efficient, the commission said.

The first Finnish rescue helicopter did not arrive on the scene of the accident -- about 70 kilometers off the coast -- until one hour, 40 minutes after the first Mayday call.

They were met by a disconsolate sight -- hundreds of life vests, many of them empty and some with dead bodies, and dozens of rafts, some overturned, thrashing about in the waves with blinking reflectors.

"It felt like you were in the middle of a movie set. We asked ourselves, 'Is this real? Is this even possible?" said Matti Rytkonen, a rescue helicopter pilot.

The southern Estonian town of Voru lost 17 people in the sinking, including the mayor and several business owners who were traveling to Sweden for a conference.

"It's hard to forget because we lost so many people," said Kulli Kaldvee, secretary of the town council.

Then-Prime Minister Mart Laar said the Estonia sinking was a blow to the small nation just as it was emerging from its Soviet past.

"It was certainly the saddest time during my term of office," he said. "But the Estonia accident didn't disturb the progress of Estonia as a nation ... and new [tourists] have come in place of the old."

Ten years later, dozens of passenger vessels ply the Baltic between ports in Sweden, Estonia, Finland, Russia, Denmark, Poland and Germany. They include small, fast catamarans and large ferries carrying as many as 2,000 passengers.

Few have the visor-style bow doors as most were welded shut after the accident.

"The locks on ferries now are about 10 times stronger than they were on the Estonia. New, stricter safety regulations would not allow the Estonia to sail today," said Tuomo Karppinen, who heads the Finnish Accident Investigation Board and was a member of the original Estonia investigation team.

Ain Kalk, an Estonian construction engineer traveling with his 11-year-old daughter on the Meloodia ferry from Tallinn, Estonia, to Helsinki, the Finnish capital, on a recent day said that he was not worried about a ferry disaster.

The Estonia ferry disaster "was an accident that happens once in a thousand years. Ships are much safer now," said Kalk, 39.

Some, including bereaved families in Sweden, have demanded the ferry be floated some 80 meters so it can be better investigated and the bodies retrieved.

Juha Karkkainen / AP

Survivors arriving in Turku on Sept. 28, 1994, after being plucked out of the sea.

The Swedish government rejected the proposal as impractical and too expensive, estimated in 1994 to cost more than $100 million.

"The sea is a mystery, and it's something people can't control," Lehtola said.

Karppala, the Finnish coast guard officer, said that he firmly believes the sunken ferry should remain on the sea bed.

"It is a good grave, a good resting place," he said.

"The ship should not be brought up; there's no reason to open up old wounds again."

Despite new rules and safety requirements, Karppala is certain of one thing: Similar accidents probably will happen again.

"The sea gives and the sea takes away; it always has done so and it always will."

Matti Huuhtanen, based in Helsinki since 1988, covered the 1994 ferry disaster when news of its sinking was first reported by maritime rescue services in Finland.