"I saw two people standing half-way in the water. When I got there, it turned out they were squatting on the roof of the submerged van.”
That was the description given by member of the Manija rescue commando Evo Pull who was first on the scene of the accident yesterday.
Just a few minutes earlier, nothing in the small port of Munalaiu suggested it would become the watery grave for four men several of whom were related.
It was a quiet midday at the port until an Opel Vivaro van entered the port’s territory and drove straight onto the vehicle deck of the ferry Kihnu Virve.
The group of people in the van, who were said to be in an obvious state of intoxication, wanted to reach the island of Manija that can be seen from the port. It was said the group wanted to visit a relative of one of their number.
Even though some of the passengers were locals – from Tõstamaa and Kihnu – it seems they knew nothing of local circumstances.
It is said the company learned the ferry wouldn’t depart for another two hours and would go to Kihnu instead of Manija only after it had boarded.
The van then backed off the ferry again. CCTV footage shows the Opel idling for a few moments on the pier before taking off. The Vivaro drove through a gate used by fishermen near the edge of the port’s territory and headed for the ice.
Locals said the company picked the worst possible route as the ice is always fragile close to the fairway. There is a puddle near where they went onto the ice, and I’m very sorry their bus didn’t get stuck there,” said filmmaker Mark Soosaar, who is perhaps the most famous resident of Manija.
The locals said that the van could possibly have made it across had it picked a different spot. The sea ice is currently strong enough. However, for that they would have had to know the local circumstances.
Instead, the van and its intoxicated passengers headed straight for oblivion. It is possible they were misled by tracks visible on the ice. The driver could have mistaken them for car tracks, while they really belonged to a local rescue commando hovercraft.
The ice, less than ten centimeters thick where the company tried to cross, gave in under the weight of the Opel a few hundred meters into the journey. The sea is three meters deep there, and the van was completely submerged in seconds.
Only two of the six people on board made it out – a 51-year-old woman and a 41-yeart-old man. It was allegedly the second such escape for the woman from Kihnu – she had escaped drowning by climbing onto the roof of a sunken tractor in her youth.
The only hope the two survivors had was for help to arrive quickly as people do not usually last more than ten minutes in freezing water.
Here is where the two castaways got lucky for the first time. If it can be called that. “Yes, we could have had six dead bodies on our hands instead of four,” Soosaar said.
Even though the accident was witnessed from the port, help would normally have arrived after ten minutes or more. Luckily, the local rescue commando has a Soviet hovercraft at its disposal.
In a further stroke of luck, the machine had been fixed up the previous evening. It was decided by the Pärnu municipality government about one month ago that the hovercraft would need to be operational.
The hovercraft’s engine was kept warm using electricity on Manija to allow the person on call to take to the sea virtually immediately.
It took Evo Pull about one minute to reach the hovercraft after he received the call a few minutes after the accident. Just a few minutes later, Pull was helping the freezing castaways onto the craft.
“They couldn’t really talk, the shock was that bad,” Pull said. “One said that men were trapped in the car, including his brother-in-law.”
By the time Pull returned with the survivors, the rescue operation of one of Estonia’s most tragic sea ice accidents had begun. Even though there was no one left to rescue.
Divers had trouble with poor underwater visibility. They also didn’t manage to get the van’s doors open. The diver had to break the van’s window and bring up two bodies that way.
Next, divers had to be changed as the first had started showing signs of hypothermia. The third body was extracted around 7.30 p.m.
“It is a very sad day. Ice that thin can at best support a person’s weight, not that of a vehicle,” said head of the Pärnu Police Department Andres Sinimeri. “Ice conditions are currently very unstable, and until we don’t have official ice roads, driving vehicles on bodies of water is extremely dangerous. We will ascertain the circumstances of the accident.”
Expert of the Rescue Board’s prevention department Mikko Virkala said that the board does not recall such a serious accident on the ice from the past.
“The Rescue Board would like to remind people that there are always places where the ice is thinner. For example, near winter fairways and areas were the ice is broken regularly,” he said. “This keeps the fairway open but also leads to cracks in the ice. A person can walk on the ice if it is unbroken, even, smooth, and at least ten centimeters thick.”
The Road Administration said that traffic is not allowed on unofficial ice roads because it is potentially fatal. “People definitely shouldn’t take to the ice in places that are not meant for it. We would urge all drivers to remember that driving on unopened ice roads or embarking in random places endangers your own lives and those of passengers,” said head of maintenance for the Western region Hannes Vaidla.
Press representative of the Western Prefecture Andra Jundas said that the diver had difficulty accessing the rear of the van as its doors were locked. One body had not been brought up by the time the paper went into print.
Criminal proceedings will be launched to determine the circumstances of the accident.