MARIENHAMN, Finland, Sept. 29 -- The captain of one of the ferries that participated in rescue efforts for the ill-fated MS Estonia said Thursday he was devastated by the enormity of the tragedy. 'It was an awful sight. Dead bodies were floating all around us,' said Cmdr. Jan Thore Thoernroos, captain of the Mariella, a Viking Line ship that was diverted to the site of the disaster while en route from Helsinki to Stockholm. Mariehamn was one of five sites where survivors were taken for hospitalization. The Mariella was about 9 nautical miles (17 land miles) from the Estonia when the bridge received an emergency call from the foundering ferry around 1:30 a.m. local time. The Mariella replied, but could not establish contact. A minute later came the mayday. The Estonia radioed its position, and said the ship was listing at a 30-degree angle. Then communications blacked out. As the Mariella raced toward the sinking ship, it saw the lights suddenly black out. A minute later, the Mariella lost the ship on radar, the captain said. By the time the Mariella arrived in the area, the Estonia was gone, but there were dozens of rafts, some of them shooting off emergency flares. 'It reminded me of a Christmas tree turned upside down,' he said. Crew members managed to pull 16 people from the churning waves. 'There was no time to think,' Thoernroos said. 'The one thing I had in my mind was to try to save as many people as possible, and it's only now I begin to realize the enormity of what happened.
Many people working on the Mariella have lost friends and colleagues.' Briton Paul Barney, 35, was one of those saved by the Mariella crew. 'The moon was up, and I saw a life raft. I managed to swim to it. I was so thankful I was able to get on the raft, even though it was upside down and filled with water,' he said. Of about a dozen people on the raft, only six survived the next hour or so until the Mariella arrived. 'It was horrible, but I felt I wasn't finished with life. I have lots of things left to do.' Kenth Hastedt, a Swede who was with a group of 26 court employees from Uppsala, Sweden, had just rejoined some of his colleagues in one of the bars after having heard strange noises while in his cabin. 'The mood in the bar was great. People were drinking, laughing, having a good time. And in a couple of seconds, catastrophe was all over us,' he said. 'The boat just sort of keeled over. People were smashing into walls, breaking arms and legs.' Hastedt said he and the others tried to get out of the bar and onto the deck. 'The boat was turned over, so I was climbing the floor to try and get out. At first, you tried to help each other. But after awhile it was everyone for himself. I remember a woman who had broken both legs, praying for help. But at that point, it was the law of the jungle.' Hastedt said out of all his colleagues, apparently only he and one other person survived.