The Swedish defence forces: MS Estonia transported military equipment

The Swedish defence forces transported more military equipment on the MS Estonia – the cruise ferry that sank en route from Tallinn to Stockholm on 28 September 1994 with the loss of 852 lives – than has been made public to date, Sweden’s Aftonbladet newspaper reported, according to BNS.

The information emerged when the Swedish accident investigation authority, SHK, which is investigating the ferry disaster in Sweden, interviewed members of the country’s defence forces.

Jonas Backstrand, head of SHK, told Aftonbladet that defence personnel were asked several questions to get answers to questions that have been up for decades. Some of them concerned the transport of military equipment on the MS Estonia.

Previously, the Swedish defence forces have said that military equipment was transported on the MS Estonia on two occasions: on 14 and 20 September 1994. Now the SHK learned that, in fact, there were more occasions.

“We conducted interviews with representatives of the defence forces – both those who are still in the corps and those who are no longer in the defence forces. The information we have, shows that there were several other occasions of shipment in the past, and they admit this,” Backstrand told Aftonbladet, according to BNS.

The Swedish defence forces said in response to a question from the country’s news agency TT that in addition to the transports already known, a “handful” of transports took place onboard the MS Estonia at an unspecified time, but not in September or on the night of the accident. Colonel Anders Stach said he cannot talk about more accurate numbers or time periods.

Stach said that technical equipment with documents was transported on the ferry, but no weapons or ammunition. SHK learned that the equipment was transported [to the port(s)] by civilian vehicles. Stach told TT that he cannot talk about the reasons for this, nor about why the Swedish defence forces waited so long to tell the public about the shipments. He also said that the customs at the time only examined the import of equipment to a limited extent.

Backstrand said that the new information is important for understanding the overall picture but does not affect the investigation in substance at this point.

“During the course of the investigation, we are looking at the ship and the damage. There’s nothing there that says it didn’t happen the way the investigation carried out in 1997 said,” Backstrand added.

MS Estonia in Stockholm in 1994. Photo by Pär-Henrik Sjöström/Estline AB.

Why is this new information important?

Rumours that the MS Estonia was used to transport military equipment (and that it could have, in theory, played a part in the sinking of the ferry) from Estonia to Sweden started circulating immediately after the disaster. Publicly, these stories were ridiculed by the officials who investigated the sinking, and dismissed as conspiracy theories.

But the rumours hit a nerve. In 2019, the Estonian investigative TV programme Pealtnägija (Eyewitness) managed to get hold of a document that showed that a month after the disaster, on 28 October 1994, the then Estonian president Lennart Meri instructed the director of the country’s Internal Security Service (kapo), Jüri Pihl, to find out whether there was an unregistered car on board on the fateful night. Meri asked Pihl to treat it as a “confidential order that concerns national security” and ordered to hand over the information personally.

Kapo’s reply, dated 2 November 1994, reveals serious discrepancies between the data of the Estonian customs, the border guards – and the shipping company, Estline that operated the MS Estonia. According to the border guards, 61 cars were taken on board the ferry on the night it sank, but according to customs and the shipping company, there were 75 cars. According to kapo’s own analysis, there could have been as many as 83 machines on board.

In the same letter to the president, kapo stated that, according to its information, “one truck on the ferry was loaded with about six tonnes of cobalt, which had not been declared to the customs.”

The information revealed in the investigative programme does not prove that something sinister took place on the night of the sinking, or that illegal truckloads somehow caused the disaster – but it made it clear from various testimonies that from time-to-time, smuggling on board the ferry did take place.

MS Estonia. Photo by Estline AB.

A Swedish customs officer ordered to let cars with military electronics through

Ten years after the sinking, in 2004, another testimony surfaced. Lennart Henriksson, a former officer in the Swedish customs, revealed in an interview with Swedish TV station SVT 1 that shortly before the sinking of the MS Estonia, two crates of secret military equipment arrived in Sweden from Estonia.

Henriksson said that on 12 or 13 September 1994, a couple of weeks before the MS Estonia sank, he and his immediate superior were summoned by the director of customs, who said: a vehicle that was not to be searched was about to arrive on board the MS Estonia; he also gave the number of the car.

When Henriksson asked why it could not be searched, the director replied: it was an order. “From whom? I wondered. The director said: from above,” Henriksson recalled, adding that nothing like this had ever happened before, that a car could not be checked.

The car in question, a Volvo 745, arrived on board MS Estonia in Stockholm on 14 September 1994 and Henriksson went to talk to the driver (named Frank Larsson, according to the papers). “I told him that the customs officers had to check the car – to which the driver looked at me. I said that the check would turn out to be fake… I opened some boxes. I saw that they contained military electronics,” Henriksson told the Swedish journalists.

Out of pure curiosity, Henriksson wrote down the number of the car in his notebook. He later found out that the vehicle was registered to Ericsson Access AB, a company belonging to the Ericsson group, a well-known Swedish telecommunications firm. But that company knew nothing about it and the driver’s name turned out to be a fiction.

On 20 September 1994, the same thing happened again. Then a van arrived, which again, the customs officers were not allowed to check. Henriksson, however, looked in some boxes and found the same equipment as in the Volvo a week earlier.

MS Estonia in Sockholm Archipelago on 12 September 1994. Photo by Pär-Henrik Sjöström/Estline AB.

The second-deadliest peacetime sinking of a European ship

The MS Estonia, a 16,000-ton cruise ferry that began serving the Tallinn-Stockholm route in 1993 and was operated by the Swedish-Estonian shipping company, Estline, was the largest ship sailing under the Estonian flag at the time. In fact, the elegant white and blue coloured ferry was seen as one of the symbols of newly found confidence of the young republic that had just regained independence, three years prior.

But in the morning of 28 September 1994, the entire country of Estonia woke up in shock to the news that the MS Estonia had sunk in the early hours. For Estonians, it was their very own “Kennedy moment” – everyone who was alive at the time, remembers where they were and what they were doing upon hearing the news.

The ship sank in the Baltic Sea while on a scheduled crossing, en route from Tallinn to Stockholm, where she had been expected in the morning. MS Estonia disappeared from the radar screens of other ships at around 01:50 EEST in international waters, about 22 nautical miles (41 kilometres) from the Finnish island of Utö. The ferry sank to the depth of 74 to 85 metres (243 to 279 ft) of water.

The shipwreck of MS Estonia lies in the international waters between Estonia, Finland and Sweden, about 22 nautical miles (41 kilometres) from the Finnish island of Utö, in the depth of 74 to 85 metres (243 to 279 ft) of water.

What made it headline news around the world was the huge loss of life. Of the 989 on board, only 138 were rescued alive (one of whom died later in hospital). As such, it is the second-deadliest peacetime sinking of a European ship, after the RMS Titanic, and the deadliest peacetime shipwreck to have occurred in European waters, with 852 lives lost. Most of the victims were Swedes (501), followed by Estonians (285).

While the weather at the sea was rough at the time of the disaster – with strong winds and waves of four to six metres (13 to 20 ft) – the ferry was supposedly built to handle the conditions. Esa Mäkela, the captain of the MS Silja Europa – a passenger ferry that first answered to the MS Estonia’s Mayday call and subsequently led the on-scene rescue effort – later described the weather as a typical autumn storm in the Baltic Sea.

A new discovery

The official disaster report said the fatal event started when the locks on the ferry’s bow door failed from the strain of the waves and the door separated from the rest of the vessel, pulling the ramp behind it ajar. This allowed water into the vehicle deck, capsizing, and ultimately sinking the ship.

A short YouTube video of the disaster, based on the official investigation report.

The lobby groups representing the victims’ families were never content with the results of the official report and over the years demanded on several occasions a new investigation.

In 1995, a treaty was agreed by Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Denmark, Russia and the United Kingdom, declaring sanctity over the disaster site, prohibiting their citizens from even approaching the wreck of the MS Estonia. The Finnish and Swedish coastguard ships were quick to react and intimidate whenever a vessel with a diving equipment approached the site of the sinking – making private investigations very difficult to conduct.

The treaty is, however, only binding for citizens of the countries that are signatories. That has allowed divers and documentary makers from other countries to conduct private investigations.

In 2020, a team led by the Swedish author and journalist, Henrik Evertsson (who, as a Swedish citizen, was in 2022 fined for this act), used remotely operated underwater robots and divers from a Norwegian company, Rockwater, to examine and videotape the wreck for the documentary, “Estonia: The Discovery that Changes Everything”.

Their footage revealed four metres high and 1,2 metres wide hole in the ferry’s hull, on the starboard side – that until that point, had never been mentioned or documented.

A footage, released by Swedish Radio, shows how pieces of MS Estonia’s steel structure are bent outwards from the hole in the ferry’s hull. Screenshot from the footage.

The revealing was upsetting and caused public discomfort in Sweden, Estonia and Finland – subsequently, the Estonian government, led by prime minister Jüri Ratas at the time, announced “a new technical investigation”. This was followed by the Swedish government, which said on 18 December 2020 that it would allow a new underwater examination of the MS Estonia.

In the wake of the revelations in the Swedish documentary, the close relatives of the people who died in the sinking of MS Estonia, organised a privately funded expedition to the wreck of the ferry in September 2021. The relatives said that many questions related to the disaster remain unanswered by official investigations that have been conducted since 1994.

Massive damage on the starboard

The same year, the Estonian Safety Investigation Bureau started carrying out a new state-funded investigation that is ongoing. In June 2022, the investigators of the bureau discovered that the damage on the starboard side of the wreck of the MS Estonia – the same damage mentioned in the Swedish documentary, “Estonia: The Discovery that Changes Everything” that kick-started the new investigation – is considerably greater than previously estimated.

The head of the Estonian investigation, Rene Arikas, said that while previous initial surveys showed the damage on the starboard side was about four metres high and 22 metres long, the investigators now see it is at least six metres high and “somewhere over 40 metres long”.

“It’s a deformation, which means there are through-holes, cracks, bruises; the outer cladding is inward in places. Because the damage continues under the hull, we can’t see the full extent of it, but the visible part is there in the region of about 40 metres,” Arikas said.

The latest disclosure by the Swedish defence forces raises, yet again, more questions than answers about the ferry disaster.

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