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.