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
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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.

By around 11:00 P.M. the restaurants had closed. In the Baltic Bar a Swedish passenger named Pierre Thiger lingered over a single Irish coffee, enjoying the show. Thiger was a Stockholm-based ship broker, age thirty-two, who had gone to Estonia to look over a small freighter, and was traveling home alone. He had taken the Estonia several times before, but never in weather so rough. As something of a mariner himself, he believed that the ship was being driven too hard, but he was not particularly worried. Earlier in the evening he had run across an acquaintance in the crowd, and the two men had dined together before proceeding to the bar; now they listened to the band.

As the weather grew worse and the ship began to roll more heavily, the waiters had trouble moving among the chairs with their trays, and a speaker on wheels began to move back and forth dangerously on the stage; at one point a dancing girl fell into the band. The show was called off at 12:30. Thiger and his acquaintance headed down one deck to the Pub Admiral, where festivities were still going strong. The Pub Admiral was a long, narrow room aft of midship on the starboard side. There were perhaps fifty people there. It was karaoke time. The crowd was loud and drunk. The sound system was turned too high. Thiger and his acquaintance sat at the back of the pub at first, but then moved forward for a better view, and perched on two high stools near the stage. Neither man ordered a drink. Thiger liked to sing, and he joined the pub's paid entertainer on the stage for a song; then he took his seat again. Several other passengers went to the stage to sing. At the entertainer's urging, the crowd sang too. Just before 1:00, when the show was scheduled to end, the entertainer, as Thiger later remembered, said, "We have such an amusing time tonight, so I think I should extend the time a little."

It was soon afterward that Thiger heard a heavy, metallic-sounding blow that reverberated sharply through the ship's structure. At first he thought it must have been caused by a heavy wave, but it didn't quite feel like ordinary "slamming." He wondered if a truck might have overturned on the car deck—but no, the impact was too strong for that; it was almost as if a whiplash had run through the bulkheads. Thiger did not express these thoughts, and his acquaintance said nothing either. A murmur may have rippled through the crowd, but the noise level was too high to tell for sure; the mood remained determinedly festive. Thiger heard a clear comment from only one passenger, a man nearby, who joked, "Ha! Now we have sailed against an iceberg!" and took another gulp of beer. The singing continued unabated.

About half a minute later there was another impact, identical to the first. Thiger got the distinct impression that the ship was swerving. He said to his acquaintance, "Do you feel it? We are swinging longitudinally now." His acquaintance said, "Yes, we are." Thiger felt a little unsettled, and reassured himself with the thought that the ship must have turned directly into the waves, perhaps to lessen the rolls while the crew lashed vehicles or cargo more securely to the decks. Suddenly, however, the ship shook with a strange back-and-forth movement and began to wallow. It rolled to port and starboard a few times, and then rolled steeply to starboard and came back a little, but never returned to level. The initial list was enough to cause glasses to come crashing off a shelf, and a speaker to rumble across the floor and collide with a railing.

The singing stopped.

Thiger felt butterflies in his stomach. To his acquaintance he said, "Now there is something completely wrong. Now let's get out of here."

"Yes, as you say," his acquaintance said.

The two men jumped up, and had taken only a few steps toward the exit when the heel increased to an angle that Thiger estimated to be about 30 degrees. There was immediate panic in the pub, with much shouting. The bar counter stood along a wall on the pub's port side. The bartender had braced herself behind it, but she collapsed screaming under a deluge of bottles and glasses. Refrigerators came loose, and stools slipped out from under the patrons who clung to the countertop to keep from falling. Others slid across the floor in a confusion of tumbling tables, chairs, and sound equipment, and they piled up in tangles along the ship's starboard side, across and downslope from the exit. The bar counter itself broke loose. Many people were injured and subsequently died. Pierre Thiger and his acquaintance managed somehow not to fall. But movement across the pub's open spaces toward the exit was now extremely difficult, even for men who were both agile and sober.

At the receiving side of the Pub Admiral's deadly collapse, along the starboard wall, sat another Swede of about the same age, a recreational diver named Rolf Sörman, who turned out to have prodigious reserves of calm, and great presence of mind. He was a member of a small "human resources" group that was making a round trip from Stockholm in order to hold a shipboard seminar in the Estonia's aft conference room—an alternative to holding the seminar in a hotel, and a common practice on Baltic ferries. As a young man Sörman had toyed with the idea of going to sea, and indeed had spent some weeks as an officer in training on a Swedish ferry before deciding that law school would provide a better life. Like Thiger, he had disapproved of the speed with which the Estonia was being driven into the waves, and he had contrasted this handling, as he later said to me, with the policies he remembered from his Swedish ferry service, during which ships had been slowed early for passenger comfort in the expectation that people would maintain their spending in the restaurants and bars. The Estonians were evidently not yet appreciative of such capitalistic subtleties. Earlier in the evening Sörman had watched as the officers pushed their ship past another ferry in a typically brutish Soviet manner. At dinner many of the people in his seminar group were sick. They consumed a pre-ordered three-course meal nonetheless, and three bottles of wine for twelve. Afterward they broke up for the night, but Sörman and four female colleagues headed up to the windward promenade on Deck 7, portside, to look at the sea. When they got there, the doors to the outside were swinging open and shut, apparently because a latch had broken, and the carpet leading from the stairwell was soaked with saltwater spray. Three of the four women grew nervous about going outside.

Eventually they all found shelter in the Pub Admiral. They ordered beers, and for a while sat too close to the speakers to be able to talk. Well before 1:00 A.M. they retreated from the noise to the farthest reaches of the pub, which happened to be across from the exit, along the ship's starboard wall. During that short walk Sörman felt two or three distinct shocks on the deck under his feet. These appear not to have been the heavy blows felt by Thiger and others, because there was time afterward for leisurely conversation. The women sat on a sofa that was bolted to the floor. Sörman sat facing them on a chair. There were windows in the wall, black with the ocean night. Five minutes before 1:00 A.M. one of the women excused herself over Sörman's affable objections. She left the pub, walked forward past the information desk and up the main staircase, and went directly to her cabin, on Deck 6. When, shortly thereafter, the ship heeled over, her door popped open and she fell backward in her cabin and was pinned by gravity against the far wall. Because she was determined and nimble, however, she managed to emerge from the trap, to negotiate the tilting hallway, to climb to Deck 7 and the outside promenade, and ultimately to survive.

Rolf Sörman and his three remaining companions moved even faster. As the Pub Admiral collapsed into chaos and screams, they jumped onto the sofa to avoid the sliding debris. A wave lapped against the windows beside them and then covered the glass with solid green water lit by the light of the ship's interior. When the ship rocked back from the steepest angle, Sörman and his group seized the opportunity to gain the exit doorway nearby. They waited there briefly for another cycle, and then lunged across an open space and dashed through a lateral corridor toward the aft stairway, which was just beyond the center line of the ship on the port side. During that dash a falling refrigerator nearly hit Sörman, and smashed into a wall. A man emerged from a forward corridor, shouting, "Don't panic! The crew has everything under control!"

They did not panic. On the other hand, they believed that the ship was out of control. They came to the aft stairway. Using the railings and brass banisters, they hauled themselves rapidly up two levels, encountering only a few other passengers along the way. At around this time there was a weak announcement in Estonian: "Häire! Häire! Laeval on häire!" meaning "Alarm! Alarm! There is an alarm on the ship!" Sörman and his companions did not hear the announcement. At the top of the stairway, on Deck 7, they found that some of the crew had formed a human chain to help people up the sloping floor to the promenade doors. Then the ship heeled more steeply, however, and the crew disappeared onto the open deck outside. Sörman and his group made it to the doorway nonetheless, and by grasping the frame they pulled themselves through. They were among the first passengers to reach the promenade. After failing to open one of the life-vest boxes, they succeeded in opening another. Still functioning as a group at that time, they helped one another to find life vests with no missing straps, and to put the vests on.

Pierre Thiger and his acquaintance were slower to escape from the Pub Admiral, though not for want of trying. The brief opportunities provided by the rolling motion—the cyclical moderations of the starboard heel that Rolf Sörman had exploited—were spoiled for them by the distance to the exit and the presence of other passengers ahead who were either too shocked or too drunk to move quickly or get out of the way. Afterward the floor angles grew so steep that even crawling was ineffective. Here again, though, people formed human chains. Thiger and his acquaintance were able to reach the hallway outside. With the further use of human chains they struggled across the ship amid scenes of bedlam and fear, and they arrived at the aft stairway. By then the stairway was crowded with fleeing passengers, many of whom were hanging on to the railings as if paralyzed. Thiger and his acquaintance tore loose their hands and shouted in their ears to get them moving, and after an agonizingly slow climb they finally arrived on Deck 7, somehow negotiated the steepening floor, and moved through the double doors to temporary safety outside. They were among the last to make it there. Since the first catastrophic heel maybe eight minutes had gone by. The list had increased by now to 40 degrees. When it got to 45 degrees, two or three minutes later, escape from the ship's interior became all but impossible.

Survival that night was a very tight race, and savagely simple. People who started early and moved fast had some chance of winning. People who started late or hesitated for any reason had no chance at all. Action paid. Contemplation did not. The mere act of getting dressed was enough to condemn people to death, and although many of those who escaped to the water succumbed to the cold, most of the ultimate winners endured the ordeal completely naked or in their underwear. The survivors all seem to have grasped the nature of this race, the first stage of which involved getting outside to the Deck 7 promenade without delay. There was no God to turn to for mercy. There was no government to provide order. Civilization was ancient history, Europe a faint and faraway place. Inside the ship, as the heel increased, even the most primitive social organization, the human chain, crumbled apart. Love only slowed people down. A pitiless clock was running. The ocean was completely in control.

Oddly enough, the relative distance that people had to travel seems to have made little difference. In the crew cabins on Deck 7, whose windows gave directly onto the portside promenade, divers later spotted the bodies of twelve victims who had gone down with the ship. Conversely, the people with the longest escape route fared surprisingly well. These were the occupants of the ship's claustrophobic basement—the cramped economy section that filled the forward half of Deck 1, below the car deck and the waterline. Because of their proximity to the bow, they turned out to have had a double advantage: an uncomfortable ride that kept many of them awake, and an early warning in the form of strange watery noises and metallic crashes, which for as much as half an hour before the list aroused their curiosity and concern. This combination helps explain why the hands-down winner of the entire race came from Deck 1. She was a Swedish woman, age thirty, who expressed concern to her companions, and climbed the stairs fully clothed to Deck 7, where she arrived presumably quite calmly and took a seat at least fifteen minutes in advance of the rush. Others on Deck 1 who were less alert to the danger were nonetheless well primed, and those who ultimately survived sprang into action immediately when the ship heeled over with a screech and a howl and an impact so violent that people were thrown out of bed, or against the walls. Up and down the hallways doors popped open and people emerged. As the leaders fled, they saw water in various forms: running in rivulets on the floor, or rushing as a river, or spurting from fittings on a wall, or cascading down from overhead. Their escape routes led by six short stairways to a common passageway inside the car deck's center casing, from which separate stairways then led upward, primarily to the Estonia's large entrance foyer, which spanned the ship at the base of its main staircase, on Deck 4. The center casing was still mostly dry, but floodwaters sprayed at the fleeing passengers through gaps around the car-deck access doors.

Those left behind had a hard time. From what little is known about conditions on Deck 1, panic broke out as soon as the windowless world began to turn onto its side. The shouting was very loud. People were trapped in their cabins, either too weak or too badly injured to overcome the increasing list. In one doorway a tough old woman hung on determinedly, trying to pull herself out. People ran back and forth in the main hallway, colliding with one another in apparent confusion about where to go. Movement soon became difficult. As the angle increased, many who had found their way to the stairs realized that they lacked the arm strength to keep climbing. One woman dressed in a nightgown stood at the base of the stairs screaming hysterically. Others who had stalled partway up seemed passive and resigned. They were overtaken by people who could not help them, and who, although still capable of movement, were themselves losing the race to escape.

"Häire! Häire! Laeval on häire!"

On the upper passenger decks—4, 5, and 6—in the extensive accommodation sections, the hallway scenes were just as rough. People who had emerged from their cabins were trying to escape along the fore-aft corridors, which at the regulation width of 3.9 feet were tight even under upright conditions, and became extraordinarily difficult to negotiate now as they began to rotate onto their sides, shrinking vertically and forcing people who were starting to walk on the walls to crouch as they attempted to proceed. Some crew members were seen trying at enormous personal sacrifice to help them along. But all was confusion, congestion, and noise—raw terror contained in those fluorescent-lit prison galleries. The starboard cabin doorways now became chasms that had to be jumped across. Passengers who failed fell into the cabins, and some did not emerge. The transverse corridors became dangerous shafts, dropping away to the starboard side. Though no witnesses of this survived, after seawater began to enter through breaking windows, those shafts became deadly wells. A particularly vicious trap was an apparent escape route provided by a small stairway at the forward end of the superstructure, which led upward through the stacked accommodation sections from Deck 4 all the way to Deck 7 on the ship's high port side. It could be reached on each deck only by crossing the forwardmost of the transverse corridors, but before the list grew too steep some quick-thinking passengers succeeded. These were people who should have survived, and a few of them who were ultra-fast did; but there was a catch to this route, and it was lethal. The principal stairways on the ship were built in a fore-aft direction—an orientation that allowed them to be scaled (by strong people, using the railings) at relatively steep angles of heel. This little stairway, in contrast, was built in a transverse direction—side-to-side—a detail which meant that as the list increased, the stairs went vertical and then inverted, cutting off the possibility even of retreat. Months later divers found so many bodies there that they could not get through to take a complete count.

Most of the passengers fled toward the main staircase at the center of the ship, emerging into the large open spaces that surrounded it on every deck, and then crawling or lunging as best they could to gain the banisters and railings. Handrails gave way from the start. As more people arrived, and the list increased, passengers began to slide and fall, and some were crushed by toppling equipment. The scenes of loss and bedlam defied coherent description by the survivors who witnessed them. On Deck 4 two women who had reached the staircase lost their grip and fell fatally against a wall. Others had already been badly injured, and some were lying apparently dead. Emotions among those unable to climb varied widely, with some people screaming incoherently, others seemingly listless and confused, and still others rational, self-contained, and brave. One of the survivors, a young man who had been trying to guide his parents and his girlfriend to safety, got separated from them in the chaos while gaining the stairs. When he looked back to find them, it was obvious that they would be incapable of negotiating the open space, across which increasing numbers of people were fatally sliding. His parents shouted at him to save himself, as did his girlfriend. It was practical advice. There was no time to linger over the decision. He turned and continued on alone.

On higher decks hundreds of similar tragedies unfolded, as the gathering crowds struggled up the main stairways and people exhausted their strength against the ever more difficult heel. Those no longer capable of movement clung to the railings or sat on the landings, just waiting for the end. People fell onto one another. One woman lost her husband to another woman that way. Among married couples the strong were delayed by the weak. It is evident from the rarity of single spouses among the survivors that many couples decided consciously to die together. These were not the sad, sweet moments one sees in the movies. There was no music playing. There was a strange, coded alarm announcement, "Mr. Skylight, to number one and number two," which was difficult to hear over the screaming. On every level the view from the main stairways was of carnage and confusion. People lay in the mouths of the hallways, unable to figure a way across the open spaces.

From the stairway some of the survivors saw a row of gambling machines fall onto passengers emerging from near the shop. The injured seem to have begged for help, but conditions simply did not allow the witnesses on the stairways to intervene. The calculation was instinctive. To release one's grip on the railings for even a moment now was to fall, and to fall now was to perish. Up on Deck 7 at the top of the main stairways, where an open foyer spanned the ship, a few extraordinary people—both passengers and crew—were trying to help those emerging from the climb to get through the double doors to the high, portside promenade. People who failed to catch the doorframe slid on the carpeted deck and were killed or injured, or ended up on the starboard promenade, on the low side, from which they were washed into the sea early as the ship continued to topple. At least one of them survived. In any case, the race to freedom was nearing an end. At some point someone secured a rope to the portside promenade and dangled it down into the stairway. It was found in the wreck by divers, and probably came too late, since none of the survivors mentioned its use. The last known attempt on the doorway was made by a woman who lay hanging on to the threshold before losing her grip and sliding away.

At the rear of the ship on Deck 5, in a café called Neptunus that adjoined the Pub Admiral, the ocean was flooding into the starboard side. A man there had been fighting hard to save his mother. He had removed his shoes and socks for a better grip, and was dragging his mother upslope by bracing against the tables, which were mounted on pillars and bolted solidly to the floor. The two had managed to stay out of the encroaching water, and, with periods of rest, had struggled to within two tables of a portside door that gave onto an open deck at the stern. At that point, however, his mother lost the last of her strength, and announced that she could go no farther. She was paralyzed not by fear or lack of will but by a simple physical fact: no matter what her mind said, her muscles would not perform. This was a reality her son now needed to understand. She lay on the floor, hanging on to a table with the ocean lapping up at her from behind, and insisted that he leave her. At first he refused, and shouted at her to keep going. But she could not, and as his mother she ultimately prevailed. He disappeared through the door, and found railings and fixtures that let him scale the ship's outside structure at angles of heel that by then were too steep to allow escape for even the strongest of the 700 people left inside.

The promenade decks, port and starboard, were lined with life-vest bins and cradles holding heavy life-raft canisters, and they were overhung by the large fiberglass lifeboats suspended from davits. Between difficulties caused by the angle of heel and the lack of coordinated action by the crew, none of the lifeboats were lowered. There were ten in all, five per side. Nine of them broke loose as the Estonia sank, and they floated to the surface as flotsam—damaged, overturned, swamped. For now, as the list steepened to 45 degrees, the starboard promenade tipped ominously toward the reach of the waves, and the port promenade did the opposite, tilting upward until its floor and Deck 7's exterior wall between them formed a perfectly balanced right angle, open to the sky like a V. Though initially the V stood on the ship's protected downwind side, as the capsize continued, the incline of the sheltering wall diminished, and the promenade grew increasingly exposed to the wind and spray. That wall rose only one level, to the open, rooflike expanse of Deck 8. It became a floor when the starboard list increased beyond 45 degrees and the Estonia lay fully down to die. But even such imperfect shelter was preferable to the horror inside, and nearly all the escapees took refuge there, on the port promenade. In total there were perhaps 250 people. Some of the crew struggled individually to live up to the responsibility that had been vested in them. The situation nonetheless was beyond salvation, and chaos on the promenade was intense. The collective screams of the victims trapped below rose through the stairwells like a cacophony from hell, a protest that for some of those on the outside near the doors drowned out even the roar of the storm.

Some of the escapees panicked, crawling around on the promenade and adding to the screams from below, or begging hysterically for life vests, or sitting apathetically against the walls, or rushing to and fro without purpose like terrified creatures losing the last ground in a flood. Such reactions, however, turned out to be the exception. Despite the unusual danger that confronted them on the ship's outsides, most of the escapees seemed to keep their wits about them. A brutal selection was at play, by which those who had succeeded in reaching the promenade tended by definition to be precisely the sort of people who could best handle the threat that awaited them there. They were fast and strong, and capable of quick calculation. Though their actions once outside were largely self-centered, with personal survival predominating over other concerns, many of the escapees proved able to work together to achieve that end—preparing and deploying the heavy life rafts, for instance, or attempting to free the lifeboats, however impossible that turned out to be. A few went further, and became genuinely altruistic. One man in particular comes to mind. He stood on the promenade looking completely composed, reassuring passengers around him that they would survive, patiently instructing people on how to don the life vests, and setting up an efficient system for the vests' distribution. Others played equally powerful roles. It was as if human society, having been torn apart, was starting to remake itself already—as if with time there could have been kings and queens on that drifting hull, and maybe even priests. But then the ocean washed them all away.

There was criminality, too, perhaps because among the various admirable characteristics being selected for, the less admirable traits of opportunism and raw aggression lay inextricably entwined. Indeed, some of the first people to follow Rolf Sörman and his three female companions outside onto the nearly empty promenade were brazen thieves—a band of young Estonian men who took advantage of the confusion to tear a gold chain off Sörman's neck and to strip cash and jewelry from the women. With startling speed they robbed others on the deck and then disappeared inside, apparently to work through the crowds that were just beginning to surge up the staircases. They were confident, as criminals tend to be, and they must not even have considered that the ship might then trap them, though the best evidence is that it did.

Sörman was angered by the assault. Still, preoccupied with finding adequate life vests for himself and the three women, he was soon confronted with aggression of a more dangerous kind. The problem started as fighting that broke out among passengers competing for life in the aft stairwell—violent behavior related to panic, but more focused and productive, which had the effect of intensifying the selection process under way and, especially toward the end, of delivering predators onto the port promenade, who had managed to come from behind and would stop at nothing to survive. A group of these people emerged from the stairwell as the list approached the cutoff of 45 degrees, and having fought their way to the promenade, they lunged at passengers already there, wrestling life vests from their grasp or tearing them off their backs. People fought back, of course, but some lost. It was not known what happened to the victims, but if they went into the water without flotation gear, as some passengers did, it is fair to say that they were murdered. The effect of the fighting on Sörman and his companions was less direct, but serious enough. They were separated into two pairs—two women on one side, Sörman and the third woman on the other—and because of the risk of being attacked, they were unable to join up again. The first pair disappeared, and did not survive.

Sörman's sole companion now was a middle-aged Swede named Yvonne Bernevall, who had participated in the seminar with him but was not a close friend. Like Sörman, she was physically strong. To escape from the aggressors on the promenade, the two of them clambered up to the open expanse of Deck 8. It was quieter there. The deck (which, again, essentially served as the ship's roof) was like a steel beach angling down dangerously toward the oncoming waves. Its slopes, however, were covered by nonskid rubberized mats, and were interrupted by life-raft cradles, pipes and protuberances of various kinds, and the walls of higher structures, including most notably the captain's quarters and the navigation bridge above it, and the large midship funnel—all of which allowed for adequate purchase. As the ship continued to capsize and flood, its movement softened, with the unfortunate effect that the waves reached higher against the decks, plucking off victims in small groups or one by one. When the auxiliary engines failed and the lights flickered off, a new round of screaming erupted, but it quieted when the emergency generator kicked in. Increasing numbers of people arrived on Deck 8 (actually now climbing down to it), because the formerly upward V formed by the promenade had rotated so far to starboard that the alternative escape route, across its rails and onto the ship's port side, had risen beyond their reach.

The storm was howling, generating waves as high as twenty-eight feet. The ship was visibly sinking at the stern. Already the aft starboard corner of Deck 8 had gone under. Crew members and passengers were deploying the automatically inflating life rafts but having trouble with the wind, which blew unsecured rafts entirely away, and jammed others against railings and edges. The wastage was enormous. The ship had safety equipment for more than 2,000 people, but it was clear that among the few hundred escapees outside, many would go wanting. Desperation mounted. Getting the rafts into the water and then getting into them proved to be just about impossible. Many rafts when activated turned out to be underinflated anyway. There weren't enough good ones to keep up with demand. An apparently perfect raft suddenly inflated—complete with a tentlike canopy and a little flashing light—and in response a large crowd rushed it, far too many people to get in. Yvonne Bernevall wanted to rush it too, but Sörman was afraid of the crowd, no less for its mood than for its size, and he persuaded her to stay away. He was struggling with a life-raft container of their own, and had hopes of getting it open in time.

When the list was 80 degrees, as loud crashes came from inside the ship, a hatch popped open on the side of the funnel, and Sörman saw a terrified crewman emerge, having climbed up an internal escape ladder from the engine room. The crewman started shouting in English, "Water is coming in on the car deck!" until another crewman, having emerged beside him, smashed him in the face to calm him down. They disappeared down-deck together. The bridge windows were now breaking in the waves. The rubberized mats were coming off the decks, piling up in jumbles, falling onto swimmers in the water. Then the funnel reached the ocean's surface, marking a list of 90 degrees, and a cloud of acrid steam enveloped the ship as seawater touched the hot exhaust pipes inside. The electricity generator failed, and people screamed, but the batteries kicked in, illuminating fluorescent emergency lights. A rocket flare arced into the night. The ship's horn blew a loud and mournful good-bye. The hull began to invert. Faced suddenly with the prospect of the ship's rolling over on top of them, scores of people still hanging on to Deck 8 began to drop into the water and attempt to swim clear. They were on the dangerous, upwind, up-storm side. Some got tangled in wires and cranes, or were dragged down or killed by the impacts of the waves. At midship the heaviest waves crashed nearly to the top of the deck, and aft they surged entirely over it. Sörman had to abandon his hopes for the life raft in the container. He had no faith that his life vest would keep him alive. He sought the hand of Yvonne Bernevall for her company, and together they fell into the sea.

Pierre Thiger took the alternate route to the water that night, as did about half of the people on the promenade. When the deck's angle reached 45 degrees, and the promenade took the form of a perfectly balanced V, he climbed over the rail, and perched outside of it on an edge above the ship's portside surface expanse—the window-lined superstructure immediately beneath him, and the heavy steel hull farther below. Though the storm was growing worse, the moon emerged through a break in the clouds and lit the scene with its reflected light. A man lost his grip trying to cross the rail, and having won the race to freedom, having made it this far, he fell back and passed directly through the stairway doors, which gaped open like jaws to receive him. There were many such horrors that night. Nonetheless, crouched safely on his perch outside the rails, Thiger remained composed. Since he had left the Pub Admiral perhaps ten minutes had passed, or maybe twelve, but certainly not more. He had lost track of the acquaintance with whom he had spent the evening and then escaped, and in a strange way he was in his element now, a man who knew ships, acting logically and alone, with no need to explain himself and nothing to do but survive. He rode the ship as others might ride a horse. He was steady. He was patient. Even when the list grew to 80 degrees, he kept waiting to see whether the hull would find its equilibrium and stabilize. When it did not, and he saw the funnel lie down and go under, he had the evidence he needed that the Estonia was inverting, so he left the railing and began to walk toward the keel across the superstructure's outsides. The ship no longer rocked much in the waves. Surf crashed over its stern, to his left. The steel underfoot was wet. He was careful not to fall through the windows into the darkened quarters below.

It is not known whether victims trapped in the cabins and common spaces saw Thiger or the others who navigated the superstructure while the hull was horizontal. From below the escapees would have seemed like shadows in a dream, passing overhead against a pale night sky. They would have seemed like fugitives on the run. One of them put his foot through a window and was injured but not caught. There was no communication between the two worlds, which had grown impossibly far apart. Altogether perhaps a hundred people made the trip across the outsides. By the time Thiger got to the lower hull, most of them had already arrived. A large group was bivouacked around a stabilizer fin, where it was possible to delay for a few minutes while the ship hesitated, lingering on its side. Soon, however, the movement resumed, and the group broke up as people joined the chaotic migration—chased forward and across the curvature of the bottom by the settling at the stern and the ship's continuing roll. The heel grew to 110 degrees, and later to 120 degrees and more. Some of the escapees had managed to drag life rafts with them, but they were having the standard problems of getting them launched—troubles that were compounded by fights that broke out, and by the desperation that drove people to pile into rafts that were still too high on the hull. Those people were difficult to dislodge, though some fell out when the rafts eventually tumbled or slid into the water. Many of the canopies did not erect. Many of the rafts flipped upside down. One riot stands for others in those apocalyptic moments: after ten people threw themselves onto an inverted raft near the aft end of the hull, and others attacked en masse, trying to get on too, the entire assembly went sliding uncontrollably into the ocean, upside down, with people clustered in the middle and hanging on to the outside. This was a poor way to survive the Baltic in a storm on a September night.

So was every other way, however. What difference did it make to be altruistic and brave—indeed, what difference to be grasping? These were the people who had led the race, and it was as if they had been deceived, suddenly abandoned to chance. Their lives had been reduced to a rolling sliver of steel, a whaleback, the outside curvature of a bilge dissolving into the sea. Between the force of the wind and the waves and the nearness of the end, there was no possibility for even the sort of embryonic society that had flickered on the Deck 7 promenade. Empty life vests and rafts both whole and ruined littered the water. People were scattered up and down the overturning hull—walking, crawling, lying down—and though some seemed to cluster, each of them in effect was alone. A couple was separated when the husband jumped into the water and beckoned to his wife, and out of terror she refused to go. As one by one they were picked off by the waves, Pierre Thiger got the impression that the ocean was reaching up to fetch them and drag them down. His own turn was coming soon. The ship had rolled to 135 degrees, halfway from prone to fully inverted, and the waves were surging all around. The water was so close that when a lifeboat that had broken loose smashed against the hull, Thiger was showered by pieces of shattered fiberglass.

The wave that took him caught him by surprise, hitting so quickly that he didn't see it coming, and he had no chance to draw a breath. He was pulled below the surface, came up, and was pulled below again on what seemed to him to be a long, long trip. The ocean bubbled and roared around his ears. Then he rose, and though he seemed to be drifting upward forever, and though he swallowed water several times, he did not breathe the water in, and eventually he arrived on the surface. Empty life vests floated in abundance there, and he caught hold of several, along with a wooden plank for good measure. Driven by the wind, a line of life rafts disappeared behind the hull—like a string of pearls, Thiger thought, or a saint's-day procession. The waves would have seemed mountainous from his swimmer's height. They bore down on him with speed, carried him upslope to the crests, and then dropped him behind as they rushed on hissing into the night. Many of them were breaking, throwing powerful white cascades down their forward slopes, leaving scars of foam on their trails. The air was full of spume and spray. Thiger heard a frightened swimmer nearby, calling for help. Encumbered by his vests, he paddled over to assist him as best he could. Later he spotted a life raft, swam to it, and got in. It was characteristic of Thiger that he did not cower in fear but sat up to look outside. The Estonia was showing its keel and slowly sliding below the surface on a steep angle, stern first. It had raised its bulbous nose so high that parts of the bridge remained clear of the ocean's surface. Ever the observer, Thiger noticed that there was something very wrong with the front end—that the ship's openable bow had somehow fallen off. Thiger was face to face with the cause of the Estonia's demise.

Survival in the water was a desperate affair. The night was rent with the cries of invisible victims pleading for help, growing weak with the cold, moaning, going silent, and losing the fight to stay alive. Nothing could be done for them. Those without life vests simply slipped away. Those with life vests died on the surface, alone among the waves. Many who found their way to life rafts could not get in. Many who got in were then washed out, and had to get in all over again. Some did not succeed. Some did succeed, only to die once inside. The horror aboard the life rafts was compounded by anonymity and confusion. Twenty-two life rafts were occupied. They were not the protective cocoons one might imagine but flimsy assemblies of inflated tubes, half collapsed, that were flipped repeatedly by the breaking waves, flushed with frigid water, and often indistinguishable from the pandemonium of the sea.

Rolf Sörman never found even such shelter in a raft. When he took Yvonne Bernevall's hand and dropped with her from Deck 8 into the ocean, he knew the temperature of the water was lethal. He gave himself a few minutes at the most before he would succumb to the cold. But he was so keyed up that the water felt neutral when he plunged in. In Baltic terms that means it felt warm. When he hit the water, he kept holding Bernevall's hand. They went deep, and Sörman cleared his ears twice before the life vests prevailed over the momentum of their fall, and they started floating upward. Near the top Sörman was hit in the head by the foot of a frantic swimmer, and he yanked his hand from Bernevall's grasp in order to protect himself. For some seconds after he surfaced he thought she might have drowned, but then she appeared nearby. He swam over to her, and they clung together for a moment to keep from being driven apart by the force of the waves. They spoke. They had a sense of being tugged at from below, as if they were in the clutches of a vertical drift caused by the hull's subsidence. Staying close together, they swam away for about twenty-five yards, against the oncoming seas, until the sensation diminished. Again they held each other and spoke. It was essential that they find something to float on. Their position upwind from the Estonia gave them no chance of reaching the life rafts, which could not be secured or delayed on this, the storm-bashed side of the ship, and which once released went scooting downwind to the east. The situation was not entirely hopeless, however, because the Estonia itself was drifting eastward, slowing as it sank, but continuing to litter the waves in its trail with waterlogged, wind-resistant debris. Sörman and Bernevall struggled through the flotsam, hoping to discover an object large enough to serve them as a raft—furniture, for instance, or a section of wooden planking. It later turned out that one survivor had ridden a wooden cupboard for a while. But Sörman and Bernevall were not so lucky. They found nothing of use, and instead came suddenly upon a scene of the dead and dying—a cluster of corpses lying facedown in the waves, and among them several people still alive but thrashing violently during the final throes of drowning. In their haste to avoid entanglement Sörman and Bernevall split apart—he striking to the left, she to the right. Minutes later, when they tried to join up again, they could not. Sörman saw Bernevall floating high on top of a wave when he was at its bottom. He swam for her, but when he saw her next she had drifted farther away. After that she was lost.

Sörman turned to swim back toward the Estonia, when suddenly his life vest came off, the flotation collar peeling over his head. He jammed it back on and tightened the straps, but it came off again. Five times this happened in rapid succession, reducing Sörman to near panic, until he realized that the wind from behind was to blame. He faced away from the Estonia and toward the wind, which solved the problem. He then tried to build a raft by stacking up ten squares of the rubberized deck matting that he found nearby. The squares were not designed to float, and they barely did, offering little more support in combination than alone. Sörman had to give up on his raft. At that point, however, an overturned lifeboat came into view, riding bow-down and low, with its keel just a few inches above the surface. The front end was completely smashed in. Sörman had the impression that the lifeboat had just emerged from the depths. He swam to it and squirmed up onto the keel, emerging partially from the water. As many as seven others did the same. Sörman helped several of them up onto the keel. The most vulnerable was a young dancer who had a nasty head wound and was frightened and weak; Sörman grabbed her by her jacket and began his second losing fight for the life of a woman that night.

Conditions on the overturned lifeboat were extraordinarily tough, with wind-driven rain and ocean spray as cold as sleet, and breaking waves that kept sweeping across the hull. The man who had found the safest position, at the stern, made no attempt to help the others, and clung with both hands to the propeller shaft in a full-blown panic, wailing prayers and loudly calling to God. For the sake of his own nerves and the courage of others, Sörman shouted at him repeatedly to stop, but the man was beyond reach, and he did not. The overturned lifeboat drifted directly toward the mutilated front end of the Estonia's hull, now heavily inverted and in the last stages of sinking into the sea. Aboard the lifeboat nothing could be done but to go for the ride. At the last moment, just when it seemed they might be smashed against the hull, they were swept slightly forward and began to pass directly under the ship's front end. An instant later, in the confusion of a nightmare, they passed into the flooded entrance of a huge dark tunnel that was swallowing the surging waves. It was the open end of the car deck, the gaping wound left when the bow fell off. Sörman realized that he had not escaped the Estonia after all—that it would catch him now and take him down. Unable to endure the sight, he turned his head away in fear. When finally he found the courage to look again, the Estonia was gone.

William Langewiesche is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. His articles on shipping and the ocean for the magazine have been collected in The Outlaw Sea, to be released this month by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
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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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