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Hundreds dead as Baltic ferry sinks

By
JONAS FREDEN

STOCKHOLM, Sept. 28 -- More than 800 people are missing and feared dead Wednesday after a ferry traveling from Estonia to Sweden capsized and sank in stormy weather off the coast of Finland in the worst European maritime disaster since World War II. The ferry MS Estonia, owned by the Swedish-Estonian joint stock company Estline-Estonia, broadcast a message reporting a serious list at 1:24 a.m. local time and then sank within minutes about 40 km (25 miles) off the southwest coast of Finland. Estonian border guards and Finnish officials said 964 people -- 776 passengers and 188 crew -- were aboard the vessel, but some Estonian officials indicated the figure might not be precise because the Estline company did not generally provide accurate passenger lists to Estonian authorities. Finnish Coastal Command chief Raimo Tiilikainen, who was directing the rescue operation, said 126 survivors had been rescued from the ferry. He said 42 bodies had been recovered and the remaining 796 were missing and feared dead. Estonian radio said the survivors included the ferry's captain and five members of the crew. Swedish authorities said the captian was an Estonian national and was very experienced. The authorities said two ferries that participated in the rescue would arrive in Stockholm late Wednesday, one carrying 26 survivors and one carrying six survivors. Police said among those aboard the Estonia when it sank were 66 civilians connected with the Stockholm police department. Authorities did not say whether any of the civilian police employees were among the survivors.

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A Swedish ship inspector who visited the vessel Tuesday told Swedish radio the rubber seals on the boat's cargo doors did not look good, and a seaman who survived the accident reported seeing water rush into the vessel's cargo bay before it capsized. Finnish authorities launched a massive search operation with vessels and helicopters from several countries. The effort, which was expected to continue through the night, was hampered by high seas and turbulent weather, but the conditions began to ease Wednesday night. Lennart Johanssen, a spokesman for the Swedish sea rescue center, said many of the survivors 'were in very bad shape when rescued' and that 'hope of finding more survivors is fading out.' Esa Saari, an official at the rescue coordination center in Turku, Finland, said conditions made it unlikely that significant additional numbers of survivors would be found. 'We hope and are trying to find (more survivors), but I don't know,' Saari said. 'In the sea water it's impossible to be (still) alive because the temperature is now about 8 degrees (Celsius) (46 F).' Officials in Estonia and Sweden were describing the sinking of the Estonia-to-Sweden ferry as the worst accident ever in the Baltic Sea. 'It was awful, the largest accident on the Baltic Sea of all time,' said Estonian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Rutt Pattir. 'This is the greatest catastrophe for Sweden in modern times,' Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt told a news conference. The disaster prompted emergency goverment meetings in both Sweden and Estonia, with Estonian President Lennart Meri declaring a day of mourning and expressing condolences on national television, and Bildt summoning a meeting of Cabinet and ordering flags flown at half-staff. More than 400 relatives of the passengers gathered at the ferry terminal in Stockholm to await word on the fate of their kin. A crisis group of 100 doctors, psychologists and ministers were assembled at the terminal to help the relatives cope with the tragedy. 'The atmosphere is subdued,' said the Rev. Magnus Magnusson. 'Some have already given up. Some are crying, but most are relatively composed.' Some of the relatives were in tears and hugging each other as they left the Estline terminal Wednesday night. Information was coming out slowly and the relatives were being notified only as authorities confirmed the name of each survivor. The Estonia, which was carrying mostly Swedish and Estonian passengers and crew, sank about 40 km (25 miles) off the southwest coast of Finland shortly after reporting a serious list at 1:24 a.m. local time. Estonian radio quoted representatives of the Estline company that operated the vessel as saying the ferry sank after its engines shut down and it was swept by 20-22 meter (60-66 foot) waves. A company spokesman said the cargo in the holds apparently shifted when the list reached 30 degrees, causing the vessel to overturn, the radio said. Helicopter pilots and crew on ships involved in the multinational rescue operation reported spotting empty lifeboats and lifejackets in the area of the disaster as daylight broke. 'We can see debris from the boat, empty rafts and rescue crews. That is it,' Per-Erik Cederkvist, an officer on the ferry Mariella, told Swedish radio. 'It looks like Estonia just tipped over and sank.' Two Swedish safety inspectors visited the Estonia Tuesday while training Estonian inspectors. Ake Sjoblom, one of the two inspectors, told Swedish radio they had noticied the rubber seals on the vessel's cargo doors 'did not look good' during the visit. Although Estonian crew members were notified of the deficiencies, Sjoblom said the visit was not a proper inspection and the condition of the seals 'wasn't bad enough to hold the boat back.' The Estonia was owned by the Estonian-Swedish joint stock company Estline-Estonia, which was registered in Tallinn five years ago and was founded by the Transport Ministry of the then-Soviet Estonia and the Swedish shipping company Nordstrom and Thulin. Andres Berg, an official of Nordstrom and Thulin, said the cause of the accident was not known and the disaster would be investigated by Finnish maritime authorities because it occurred in Finnish waters. Berg told Sky television the ferry's cargo decks 'were basically completely full with lorries, trucks and ordinary passenger cars.' He said at some point the engine on the ferry had been 'blacked-out, which means it stopped,' but a loss of power by itself was not sufficient reason for the ferry to overturn. Although weather was poor in the area, Berg expressed skepticism that rough seas alone could have caused the disaster. He said the Estonia had been plying Baltic waters for 14 years and 'has certainly experienced even much worse weather than this without any problems. The ferry sank when it was about six hours into the voyage from Tallinn to Stockholm, a popular route on which 168,000 people traveled in the first six months of operation. There have been several ferry disasters in the Baltic in recent years. A 1990 fire on the Scandinavian Star killed 158 people and in January 1993 the Polish ferry Jan Heveliusz capsized and sank off the Polish coast with 54 people drowned. Incumbent Swedish Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson, who takes office Oct. 7, described the disaster as one of the worst in Sweden's recent history, and he called for an international review of ferry safety regulations. 'Many people will be given a very sad message today,' he said. 'In a short space of time, three major accidents have occurred in the Baltics. This is not acceptable. People must be able to travel in safety. I will now call on a special commission to go through safety regulations, probably an international one.'

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Helicopter pilots and crew on ships involved in the multinational rescue operation reported spotting empty lifeboats and lifejackets in the area of the disaster as daylight broke. 'We can see debris from the boat, empty rafts and rescue crews. That is it,' Per-Erik Cederkvist, an officer on the ferry Mariella, told Swedish radio. 'It looks like Estonia just tipped over and sank.' Two Swedish safety inspectors visited the Estonia Tuesday while training Estonian inspectors. Ake Sjoblom, one of the two inspectors, told Swedish radio they had noticied the rubber seals on the vessel's cargo doors 'did not look good' during the visit. Although Estonian crew members were notified of the deficiencies, Sjoblom said the visit was not a proper inspection and the condition of the seals 'wasn't bad enough to hold the boat back.' The Estonia was owned by the Estonian-Swedish joint stock company Estline-Estonia, which was registered in Tallinn five years ago and was founded by the Transport Ministry of the then-Soviet Estonia and the Swedish shipping company Nordstrom and Thulin. Andres Berg, an official of Nordstrom and Thulin, said the cause of the accident was not known and the disaster would be investigated by Finnish maritime authorities because it occurred in Finnish waters. Berg told Sky television the ferry's cargo decks 'were basically completely full with lorries, trucks and ordinary passenger cars.' He said at some point the engine on the ferry had been 'blacked-out, which means it stopped,' but a loss of power by itself was not sufficient reason for the ferry to overturn. Although weather was poor in the area, Berg expressed skepticism that rough seas alone could have caused the disaster. He said the Estonia had been plying Baltic waters for 14 years and 'has certainly experienced even much worse weather than this without any problems. The ferry sank when it was about six hours into the voyage from Tallinn to Stockholm, a popular route on which 168,000 people traveled in the first six months of operation. There have been several ferry disasters in the Baltic in recent years. A 1990 fire on the Scandinavian Star killed 158 people and in January 1993 the Polish ferry Jan Heveliusz capsized and sank off the Polish coast with 54 people drowned. Incumbent Swedish Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson, who takes office Oct. 7, described the disaster as one of the worst in Sweden's recent history, and he called for an international review of ferry safety regulations. 'Many people will be given a very sad message today,' he said. 'In a short space of time, three major accidents have occurred in the Baltics. This is not acceptable. People must be able to travel in safety. I will now call on a special commission to go through safety regulations, probably an international one.' cda-emki

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