Head of expert committee: Coverup without end

Estonia uurimiskomisjoni endine juht Margus Kurm. FOTO: Sander Ilvest

PHOTO: Sander Ilvest

Former head of the Estonia disaster expert committee Margus Kurm says that it is likely MS Estonia sank after colliding with a Swedish submarine that was guarding military equipment on board the Estlink passenger ferry. Kurm worked with the team of a new Discovery Channel Sweden documentary investigating the shipwreck.

Please describe the hole in the wreck.

It is a tear that measures four meters tall and 1.2 meters across. If you can imagine punching a hole through paper, there will be a kind of hole in the middle and tears running in four directions. The center of the hole is beneath the waterline, while it also reaches above the waterline, as high as the car deck.

What does the tear tell you?

It tells me that MS Estonia collided with something that was big enough to break through its hull.

What was it?

Considering that the hole’s center is beneath the waterline and that none of the survivors reported seeing an above water vessel, it is very likely that MS Estonia collided with a submarine. However, when it comes to this theory, people tend to imagine a submarine ramming the ferry at a 90-degree angle. That might not have been the case. It is far more likely that the vessels were moving in the same direction and bumped into each other. It is also possible that it was MS Estonia that brushed the submarine and not the other way around. The question that really matters is what was a submarine doing on MS Estonia’s route in the first place?

What was it doing there?

Here we have two versions. The first is that there were Swedish military drills taking place in the region. It was possible to observe helicopters in the middle of a naval operation from the decks of civilian ships that night. That is one version. The other is that the submarine was guarding MS Estonia because it had some kind of sensitive cargo. Personally, I tend to hold the latter version more likely. I cannot believe that a coverup of this magnitude would have been ordered had it simply been a navigational error.

Are we talking about a Swedish submarine?

Yes, quite probably.

What could have been the cargo MS Estonia was carrying that required a submarine escort?

Because there is no evidence to be taken seriously as concerns potential cargo, I would avoid the subject matter. But new information that effectively proves there was a coverup makes it likely that there was a sensitive shipment on board MS Estonia that night.

Adviser to the foreign minister Mart Luik said during the government press conference on Monday that the ferry could have hit a rock as it sank.

That is either ignorance or wishful thinking. Firstly, the side of the ferry with the hole in it has never touched the seabed. MS Estonia does not lie on its side but is rather resting on its head or one ear so to speak. The position of the hull was recorded during the dive in 1994 and if we put it on paper, everyone can see that this part of the hull and the car deck are not touching the bottom. This fact also overturns the theory according to which this part was not accessible before. It was fully accessible. The entire area of the tear was accessible, visible and filmable in 1994.

So, the claim made at the government press conference according to which the hole was not visible before, while the ferry has moved since then is wrong?

We can say that, yes. While the hull has lifted a little, it basically still landed on its head so to speak. Nevertheless, the bottom of the ferry was always fully visible.

How is it possible the hole was not detected before?

There are two possibilities, theoretically speaking. The first is that the people, specialists who investigated the shipwreck at the time did not deem it necessary to study the bottom of the ferry, while the other is that it was investigated and the damage noted but never made public. A dive took place in December of 1994 where original footage was recorded. One of two original tapes was kept by the company that organized the dive called Rockwater and the other by the Swedish maritime authority. The Rockwater copy was burned shortly after it was recorded and the originals kept by the maritime authority are missing. In other words, no one knows where original footage from 1994 is today. What can be accessed today and what the investigative committee had access to back then are copies and we know that they have been manipulated, edited.

There were plans to cover the ferry in concrete and a lot of gravel was piled up at the site. Was the gravel dumped over the hole?

That seems to be the size of it. The bottom was initially fully visible from the side with the hole before they dumped 400,000 cubic meters of sand and gravel on top of it.

Following Sweden’s initiative?

Yes, following the initiative of the Swedish side. That part of the ship and the damage was hidden. What has happened since then? The ferry’s bottom has lifted, some of the sand has fallen off and the tear is visible again.

What does that tell you as a former public prosecutor? Are we dealing with a coverup of a criminal offense?

I would not use legal terms here, but if we align these facts… Let us start with the fact that Sweden is a maritime country with a long tradition and a submarine fleet, as well as full capacity for underwater investigations. That capacity was not used. The official version we’ve been told for 26 years is that the only dive took place in December of 1994 or two months after the disaster. The dive was handled by a private contractor. Imagine that you have 850 casualties, the biggest shipwreck in peacetime history and the Swedish state does nothing. It makes no sense.

Why?

I believe that in reality, divers were immediately dispatched to record everything that was necessary. It has simply been kept from the public. Moving on, the idea to cover the ferry in concrete was proposed as early as in October of 1994. The international investigative committee hadn’t even properly started its work. Then we had the respect for the deceased contract in February 1995, which is when sand and gravel were dumped on the wreck. It is most likely a coverup.

Would Estonia have sunk without that hole in its side?

Most definitely not. The hole fits the bill. It answers all previously unanswered questions. It explains how water made its way below the car deck, why the ferry didn’t tip over as quickly as all others have. It does away with conflicting evidence. We no longer need to twist the words of the three sailors who were in the engine room when the disaster happened. They have said that the visor was closed and the ferry alist. We can now believe that it was indeed shut and that water came in through the hole and created the tilt.

Why did the bow visor break?

It came under abnormal pressure as the vessel careened that likely caused it to break off.

Is it a good thing that Estonia as the country under the flag of which MS Estonia sailed will be taking over the investigation now?

While it is definitely a good thing, my question is whether the Estonian government is credible enough. We know that they’ve refused to face the truth for 26 years.

The new investigation should be headed by someone from outside the government sector. For example, a respected Supreme Court or district court judge. Secondly, representatives of victims’ loved ones should be involved, as well as journalists. This investigation should be broadcast live so to speak. Only then could we ensure transparency and win back some of the trust lost over the years. But a committee made up of Estonian, Finnish and Swedish officials will not constitute a transparent investigation.

Should Sweden be left out?

Yes, I believe that Sweden should be left aside. Of course, I understand politicians and that the prime minister and foreign minister cannot simply boycott a friendly country. At the same time, I would not rule out sitting down, looking at the history of this thing and telling them [Swedes] that this is why we cannot trust you or that we will try to get it done ourselves.

How likely is it that the Estonian side has been aware of at least parts of the truth those 26 years and participated in the coverup?

I have always believed and still do that Estonian politicians and high-ranking officials did not know why the ferry really sank. They were not told as the game was played above their heads. I could be wrong, but that is the impression I was left with after 15 years and still am. I also believe that no future government has been given a frank overview of these matters.

Will the Estonian side be allowed to investigate the matter thoroughly?

I thought of something after the government’s statement from this morning (Monday – ed.). Everyone has seen the film “Viimne reliikvia” (The Last Relic). In the end, when the monastery is in flames, we see a young monk ask the holy father whether it is the end. And the holy father replies: “No, it is not the end, everything will continue. This fire is not the end of our holy quest.” Well, this newly found hole is also not the end of the conspirators’ holy quest.

Member of the investigative committee describes the theory as harebrained

While statements by several MS Estonia survivors seem to corroborate Kurm’s version, member of the international investigative committee of the MS Estonia disaster, professor emeritus of the Tallinn University of Technology Jaan Metsaveer believes that the hole was created as the ferry sank to the bottom and describes the theory of a collision with a submarine as harebrained.

Jaan Metsaveer.

PHOTO: Eero Vabamägi

“I believe there could have been some rocks on the seabed where MS Estonia sank. That it fell on top of them and that created the holes. The hull has moved after decades, causing the holes to become visible. I cannot claim it is the truth until I see those rocks with my own eyes, but I believe it to be the likeliest explanation,” Metsaveer said.

Regarding Margus Kurm’s version, Metsaveer said that the former prosecutor has said a lot of things, including claiming that vessels the size of MS Estonia float on their side as they keel over. “A person who has no grasp on physics and shipping can draw all kinds of conclusions,” he said.

According to Metsaveer, the location of the hole in MS Estonia’s hull suggests that even it the ferry was rammed by another vessel, it would have been an above water ship, while nothing of the sort was picked up by radar systems or reported by survivors.

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas said during the government’s press conferences on Monday that Estonia, Finland and Sweden have agreed to launch a new investigation that will be headed by Estonia. Underwater surveys will be undertaken within the confines of the 1995 respect for the deceased agreement.

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