The last voyage of the Estonia

William Langewiesche
26 September 2005

This extract is from one of seven books shortlisted for the 2005 Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage. The winner will be announced on 15 October, and over the coming weeks openDemocracy will present extracts from each of the finalists:

  • “Baghdad burning: girl blog from Iraq”, Riverbend
  • “Of Wars: Letters to Friends”, Caroline Emcke
  • “Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier”, Alexandra Fuller
  • “A season in Mecca: narrative of a pilgrimage”, Abdellah Hammoudi
  • “The Outlaw Sea: Chaos and Crime on the World’s Oceans”, William Langewiesche
  • “Maximum City: Bombay lost and found”, Suketu Mehta
  • “Death in the Little Pentagon: The Secret Killing Fields of the Peruvian Army”, Ricardo Uceda
  • * * *

    Extract from The Outlaw Sea: Chaos and Crime on the World’s Oceans (Granta, 2005)

    Earlier that evening, by about 11:00 p.m, the restaurants had closed and most people had retired however queasily to their cabins. In the Baltic Bar on Deck 6, a Swedish passenger named Pierre Thiger lingered over an 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 travelling home alone. This was his fourth trip on the ferry, and the roughest he had experienced on any vessel. 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 Urmas Alender good naturedly, without caring about his songs or knowing who he was. As the weather grew rougher, the waiters had trouble moving between the chairs with their trays, and a speaker on wheels began to roll back and forth on the stage. At one point a dancing girl fell into the band. After Alender called things off at 12:30, Thiger and his friend headed down one deck to the Pub Admiral, where the festivities were still going strong.

    The Pub Admiral was aft of mid-ship on the starboard side. There were perhaps fifty people there. The entertainer was a Swedish musician named Pierre Isaksson, who in the 1960s and 1970s had belonged to a popular quartet called The Family Four, but now belonged to the ferry company and was visibly farther along than Alender on the downside of a musical career. He was leading the crowd in songs. The audience was loud and drunk. The sound system was turned too high. Both of the eventual survivors from the bridge – Silver Linde and the trainee Kukk – briefly stopped by. Thiger and his friend 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 Isaksson for a song, then took his seat again. The two men knew each other from previous voyages, and they commented that they shared the same first name. Several other passengers joined Isaksson to sing. At Isaksson’s urgings, 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 the 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 friend said nothing either. A murmur may have rippled through the crowd, but the noise level was too high to tell for sure; the mood was 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 another impact was felt, identical to the first, and Thiger got the distinct impression that the ship was swerving. He said to his friend, “Do you feel it? We are swinging longitudinally now.” His friend said, “Yes, we are.” Thiger felt a little unsettled, and he 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, 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 for a speaker to roll across the floor and crash.

    The music stopped.

    Thiger felt butterflies in his stomach. To his acquaintance he said, “Now there is something completely wrong. Let’s get out of here.”

    “Yes, as you say,” his acquaintance said.

    The two men jumped up, but they 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 patrons, who clung to the countertop to keep from falling. Others were not so lucky. They 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, down deck from the exit. Then the bar counter itself broke loose. Many people were injured and subsequently died. It is not clear where Pierre Isaksson was. 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 such agile and sober men.

    At the receiving side of the Pub Admiral’s deadly collapse, along the starboard wall just across from the doorway to the ship’s interior halls, 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. Sörman wore a gold chain around his neck. 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 he had spent some weeks as an officer in training on a Swedish ferry of the Silja Line before deciding that law school would provide for a better life. Like Thiger, he disapproved of the speed with which the Estonia was being driven into the waves, and he contrasted this handling, as he later said to me, with the policies he remembered from the Silja Line, in which the ships were slowed early for passenger comfort, in the expectation particularly that people would maintain their spending in the restaurants and bars. These Estonians were evidently not quite ready for such capitalist subtleties. Earlier in the evening, Sörman had watched as they pushed their ship brutishly past the Viking Mariella. At dinner, many of the people in his seminar group were sick. They had a preordered three course meal nonetheless, and three bottles of wine for their group of twelve. Afterward they broke up for the night, but Sörman and four of the women headed up to the windward promenade on Deck 7, port side, 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. 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., over Sörman’s affable objections, one of the women excused herself. Her name was Anita Person-Flygare. She walked forward past the information desk, up the main staircase, and 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, pinned by gravity against the far wall. Because she was determined and nimble, 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, they jumped onto the sofa to avoid the sliding debris. A wave lapped against the windows beside them, 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, then lunged across an open space and dashed through a lateral corridor toward the aft stairway, which was near the centre of the ship on the port side. During that dash a falling refrigerator nearly hit Sörman and then smashed into a wall. A man emerged from a forward corridor shouting, “Don’t panic. The crew has everything under control!” Sörman and his companions were not panicking. 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. They did not hear the weak and impromptu, “Häire! Häire! Laeval on häire!” At the top of the stairway, on Deck 7, they found that some of the crew (whose cabins occupied that deck) had formed a human chain to help people up the sloping floor to the promenade doors. When the ship heeled more steeply, however, the crew disappeared to 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 complete life vests with no missing straps, and to put those life 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 full body 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 arrived at the aft stairway. By then the stairway was choked 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 was no longer possible, except for the engine-room crew.

    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 winners endured the ordeal completely naked or in their underwear. In any event, the survivors all seem to have grasped the nature of this race, the first stage of which involved getting 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.

    * * *

    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 he 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 port side door that gave onto an open deck at the stern. At that point 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, the ocean lapping up at her from behind, and she 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 after crossing the stern deck, he 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 nearly seven hundred 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 large fibreglass lifeboats suspended from davits – ten in total, five per side. Between difficulties caused by the angle of heel and the lack of coordinated action by the crew, none of the boats would be lowered, although nine would break loose when the Estonia finally sank, and they would float to the surface as flotsam – damaged, overturned, swamped. For now, as the list steepened, the starboard promenade spilled ominously toward the reach of the waves, and the port promenade did the opposite, rising and tilting upward until its floor and the recessed exterior wall of the Deck 7 housing, between them, formed a perfectly balanced right angle V open to the sky. Though initially the V stood on the ship’s protected downwind side, as the capsize continued, the promenade grew increasingly exposed to the wind and spray by the diminishing inclination of the sheltering wall. The wall rose only one level, to the open, roof-like 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 of the escapees took refuge there, on the port promenade. In total there were perhaps two hundred and fifty people. Some of the crew struggled individually to live up to the responsibility that had been vested in them. The relief captain, Avo Phit (destined to become Jutta Rabe’s celluloid martyr), was last seen trying to rally his troops; the trainee Kukk was busy with the lifesaving equipment, and even Silver Linde, having lost his radio, acquitted himself well. The situation nonetheless was beyond salvation, and the 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 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 their own screams to those 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 hopeless or incoherent people, 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 and to remain effective even at severe angles of heel. A brutal selection was at play, by which those who had succeeded in gaining 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-centred, with personal survival predominating over other concerns, many of them proved capable of working 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. 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. 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 the gold chain off Sörman’s neck and to strip the cash and jewellery 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 behaviour related to panic, but more focused and productive, that had the effect of intensifying the selection process under way and, especially toward the end, of delivering onto the port promenade predators who had managed to come from behind and would stop at nothing to survive. A group of these people emerged from the aft stairwell as the list approached the cut-off of 45 degrees, and, having fought their way to the promenade, they lunged at passengers already there, wresting life vests from their grasp or tearing them off their backs. People fought back, of course, but some lost. It is 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, with the fighting in between – 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 women on the far side 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, constituted much of the ship’s roof) was like a steel beach angling dangerously down toward the oncoming waves. Its slopes however were covered by non-skid rubberized mats, and were interrupted by life raft cradles, pipes and protuberances of various kinds, and the walls of higher structures, including most notably those of the captain’s quarters and the navigation bridge above it, and of the large mid-ship funnel – all of which allowed for adequate purchase. As the hull continued to capsize and flood, it grew heavy with water, and its movements 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 settled again 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 the 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. The ship was visibly sinking by the stern. Already the aft starboard corner of Deck 8 had gone under. Passengers and crew deploying the automatically inflating life rafts were 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 two thousand 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. Most rafts when activated turned out to be underinflated anyway. The good ones were too few to keep up with demand. On Deck 8 an apparently perfect raft suddenly inflated – the full thing, complete with a raised tent like 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 had no intention of going into the water. From his experience diving in the tropics, where even in tepid waters he had to wear wet suits to stay warm, he was convinced that he would die very quickly of the cold. But he was struggling with a life raft container of their own, and he 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 in the funnel and Sörman saw the terrified motorman emerge from his climb. The motorman started shouting in English, “Water is coming in on the car deck!” until the system engineer, having emerged beside him, smashed him in the face to calm him down. They disappeared together. The third engineer must have emerged soon afterward, though he was not seen by Sörman. 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 touched the ocean’s surface, marking a list of 90 degrees, and a cloud of acrid steam enveloped the ship as the seawater contacted the hot exhaust pipes inside. The electric 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 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 impact of the waves. At mid-ship 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 in his life vest to 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 outboard over the rail and perched outside of it on an edge above the ship’s port side 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 fell back through the stairway doors, which gaped open like jaws to receive him. There were many such horrors that Thiger saw and wished he had not. Nonetheless, crouched safely on his perch outside of the rails, he remained cautious and 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 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, and so he left the railing and began to walk down 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 when 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. In total perhaps 150 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 the 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 getting them launched – difficulties compounded by fights that broke out and by the desperation that drove people to go piling 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 hanging on inside and out. 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 suddenly abandoned to chance. How tame did the Baltic seem then? How subject to German engineering, to wise counsel and international regulation? 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 hull – walking, crawling, lying down – and though some seemed to cluster, each of them in practice 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 fibreglass.

    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, as well as a wooden plank for good measure. Driven by the winds, a line of life rafts disappeared behind the hull, like a string of pearls, Thiger thought, or a saint’s day procession. The waves 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 – presumably by snaring additional flotation gear. When he looked back at the Estonia, it was showing its keel and slowly sliding below the surface on a steep angle, stern first. It had raised its bulbous bow so high that parts of the bridge remained clear. Ever the observer, Thiger was one of those who noticed that the entire front end was missing – that the ship’s bow visor somehow had fallen off. There was no time to think about that now. He watched the ocean flood into the bridge. 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. He watched the ship disappear. There was no whirlpool sucking things down. The surface bubbled and boiled for a while, and then did not. The life raft was treated violently by the waves, but several hours later Thiger was winched to safety by a helicopter and delivered to a rescue ship, the Symphony of the Silja Line. The Symphony in turn delivered him to Stockholm, where he went ashore grateful to be alive, but shocked by the death of so many others.

    Survival in the water was of course a desperate affair. The night was rent with the cries of invisible victims pleading for help, then 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. Attempts to organize their collective history will always suffer from the incoherence of that history as it was actually lived. The JAIC later tried to sort things out using bureaucratic technique – cross referencing the survivors’ statements and assigning letters to the lifeboats in a progression from A to V. But even its official report reads like a kaleidoscope of fear.

    * * *

    Rolf Sörman never found even such late shelter in a raff. When he took Yvonne Bernevall’s hand and dropped with her from Deck 8 into the frigid sea, he knew that he was going to die. He gave himself a few minutes at the most until he would succumb to the cold. When he did survive – and was ultimately airlifted to safety – he credited his life to the adrenaline load that had coursed through his veins. Physiologists might disagree, but there is no question that his body’s instinctive defences played a primary role. He was so wired that the water did not feel cold to him when he plunged in.

    When he hit the water, Sörman 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 talked. They had a sense of being tugged from below, as if they were in the clutches of a vertical drift caused by the hull’s subsidence. Staying closely together, they swam away for about twenty five yards against the oncoming seas until the sensation diminished. Again they held each other and talked. 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 up-weather 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 water-logged, wind resistant debris. Sörman and Bernevall struggled through the flotsam, hoping to discover an object large enough to serve as a raft – furniture, for instance, or a section of wooden planking. It later turned out that one survivor did ride 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 her 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 turned his back again on the Estonia, 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, including the heroic third engineer. The weakest was a young woman dancer who had a nasty head wound and was very frightened. 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, as well as 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 he 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 bulbous bow. 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 ship’s voracious mouth. 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.

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