Disaster in the Baltic

September 29, 1994

You could fly from Tallinn to Stockholm, like Baltimore to New York, but many travelers prefer the dance floors, gambling, smorgasbord and gentle breezes of the ferries. The Estonia, shuttling between the two ports, was part floating resort and part bridge of the new Europe. Giant trucks, behemoths of the highways, came aboard.

Roll-on, roll-off ferries are inherently unstable, having no bulkheads in the holds. Water in the open car decks will slosh from side to side. Precautions are taken in operations, and some 4,500 RoRos ply the world's waterways, roughly as safe as any mode of transportation.

The Estonia, which went down Tuesday night off Finland with some 800 known or presumed dead, was built in 1980 in West Germany with all modern navigational aids. It conformed to old international safety standards but had not to new ones going into effect Saturday. Officials of the Swedish Maritime Safety Association inspected the Estonia shortly before it sailed and found its watertight seals unsatisfactory.

Menace always lurks beneath the sea, and ferries are as vulnerable as other vessels. In 1987, a British RoRo ferry left Zeebrugge in Belgium and promptly sank with the death of 188 because a crew member neglected to seal the very ramp door that was allegedly defective on the Estonia. What may have been the second-greatest maritime death toll occurred that year in the Philippines when the ferry Dona Paz hit the oil tanker Victor, which exploded, killing an illegal number of passengers estimated between 1,800 and 4,000.

The normally serene waters of the Baltic Sea were so stormy Tuesday night the band stopped playing in the ballroom. Water was spied by surveillance cameras coming through the bow door seals just after midnight, and the giant ferry, half again as long as an American football field, sank less than two hours later.

Safety regulations are meant to prevent the possibility of this, but probably never will. Whatever was at fault was preventable, possibly already detected, and inexcusable. Humanity's professions are on a holy quest for an accident-free world, but may never arrive. Meanwhile, the bigger the ships get, the larger the tragedy when mechanical defect or human error collides with a storm at sea.

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