A Sea Story

One of the worst maritime disasters in European history took place a decade ago. It remains very much in the public eye. On a stormy night on the Baltic Sea, more than 850 people lost their lives when a luxurious ferry sank below the waves. From a mass of material, including official and unofficial reports and survivor testimony, our correspondent has distilled an account of the Estonia's last moments—part of his continuing coverage for the magazine of anarchy on the high seas

After midnight, in the first hours of September 28, 1994, the ferry Estonia foundered in the waves of a Baltic storm. The ship was the pride of the newly independent Estonian nation, recently arisen from the Soviet ruins. It was a massive steel vessel, 510 feet long and nine decks high, with accommodations for up to 2,000 people. It had labyrinths of cabins, a swimming pool and sauna, a duty-free shop, a cinema, a casino, a video arcade, a conference center, three restaurants, and three bars. It also had a car deck that stretched from bow to stern through the hull's insides. In port the car deck was accessed through a special openable bow that could be raised to allow vehicles to drive in and out. At sea that bow was supposed to remain closed and locked. In this case, however, it did not—and indeed it caused the ship to capsize and sink when it came open in the storm and then fell entirely off.

On the night of its demise the Estonia had 989 people aboard. It departed from its home port, Tallinn, at around 7:15 P.M., and proceeded on its regular run, 258 miles and fifteen hours west across open waters to the Swedish archipelago and Stockholm. For the first several hours, as dusk turned to night, it moved through sheltered coastal waters. Passengers hardy enough to withstand the wind and cold on deck would have seen gray forested islands creeping by to the north, and to the south the long industrial shoreline of Estonia giving way to a low coast darkening until it faded into the night. Gentle swells rolled in from the west, indicating the sea's unease—with significance probably only to the crew, which had received storm warnings for the open water ahead but had not spread the news. There were various forecasts, and they tended to agree: an intense low-pressure system near Oslo was moving quickly to the east, and was expected to drag rain and strong winds across the route, stirring up waves occasionally as high as twenty feet. Such conditions were rare for the area, occurring only a few times every fall and winter, but for ferries of this size they were not considered to be severe. Surviving crew members later claimed that a special effort had been made on the car deck to lash the trucks down securely—exemplary behavior that, if it occurred, probably had more to do with concern about vehicle-damage claims than about the safety of the ship. No other preparations were made. The main worry was to arrive in Stockholm on time.

That night the ship knifed ahead at its full 19 knots, with all four main engines fully throttled up to their combined output of 23,500 horsepower, driving the hull across the gently accumulating seas. The vessel's motion was at first barely noticeable to the passengers. Inside the Estonia, the public spaces had the look of a coastal casino designed around a nautical theme—completely serviceable but over-decorated in red, a bit worn, a bit out of date. Though many couples and a few groups were aboard, collectively it was a ship full of strangers, with little time to make new friends or, as people do on longer passages, to fall even temporarily in love. The experience of the sinking therefore turned out to be lonely and highly atomized. Observers who later claimed that a social breakdown had occurred failed to take that into account. Still, at first that night there was something of a cruise-ship atmosphere on the Estonia, as passengers dropped off their bags in their cramped, Pullman-style cabins and emerged to explore the possibilities for whiling away the hours. Their choices ranged from visiting the sauna and pool on Deck 0, deep below the waterline, to stopping by the various bars, entertainment spots, and restaurants on Decks 4, 5, and 6. Deck 7 contained the crew cabins, but it had an outside promenade for passengers who wanted to feel the wind and watch the ocean surge by. An external staircase led to additional outside space on Deck 8, from which the lifeboats hung on davits. Because of the wind and the cold, only a handful of passengers ventured outside. Turned inward from the sea, the others lingered over their drinks and meals and, as the evening drew on, talked, read, gambled, or watched dancing girls and listened to Estonian rock in the big Baltic Bar, on Deck 6.

By 10:00 P.M. the Estonia had passed north of a lighthouse called Osmussaar and was moving through the open ocean in deteriorating weather, with rain, strong winds, and an overcast scudding low and fast across steep seas. The ship was still running at full power, but it was slowed now to 17 knots by the impacts of the waves, which rose regularly to ten feet and higher. Sheets of salt water were torn loose by the plunging and driving of the bow. They swept as heavy spray across the foredeck, and rained against the window-lined superstructure, as high as the upper decks and the navigation bridge. Though the motions of the hull were complex, the ride was rough mostly just in pitch and not in roll, because the waves, unlike the winds, came from nearly straight ahead. The ship heaved upward and vibrated in the heaviest water, and slammed down into the troughs, sometimes with a crash. The motions were difficult to predict even for the crew. Some passengers grew seasick, and retired to their cabins to suffer in private. This was not the best tactic, since most of the cabins were located forward in the ship, where the motion was most violent. For anyone feeling sick, just getting to them would have been a trial. The interior hallways of the accommodation sections were windowless, fluorescent-lit passageways, smelling of aluminum and plastic, and barely wide enough for two people to pass. They ran fore and aft, and had branches from side to side. With their twenty-four-hour lighting and long rows of anonymous, closely spaced cabin doors, they gave those parts of the ship an institutional allure not much different from that of modern prison galleries. Moreover, the cabins themselves were smaller than cells, and though this must have been unimaginable to even the most miserable of their occupants that night, many soon turned into traps and then coffins.

Presented by

William Langewiesche

"Enclosed are Two Pieces on Algeria." With those words, typed on plain white bond, William Langewiesche introduced himself to the editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Although neither piece quite stood on its own, the editors were drawn to the unusual grace and power of Langewiesche's writing and sent him on assignment to North Africa for a more ambitious piece of reporting. The result was the November 1991, cover story, "The World in Its Extreme"—his first article to appear in a general-interest magazine. (He had, however, written frequently for aviation magazines; he is a professional pilot and first sat at the controls of an airplane at the age of five.) Since that article, from which his book Sahara Unveiled: A Journey Across the Desert (1996) grew, Langewiesche has reported on a diversity of subjects and published four more books.

A large part of Mr. Langewiesche's reporting experience centers around the Middle East and the Islamic world. He has traveled widely throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, reporting on such topics as the implementation of the shari'a in Sudan under Hassan al-Tarabi, North Africa's Islamic culture, and the American occupation of Iraq. Other recent assignments have taken him to Egypt, the Balkans, India, and Central and South America. In 2004 he won a National Magazine Award for excellence in reporting.

In 2002 his book American Ground: Unbuilding The World Trade Center was published. It is based on a series of three cover stories he wrote for The Atlantic as the only American reporter granted full access to the World Trade Center clean-up effort. His latest book, The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, was published in May 2004.

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