MS Estonia investigation chief: Sticking to March schedule unfeasible

Elo Mõttus-Leppik
, Otse Postimehest saatejuht
Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

Even though surveys of the wreck of passenger ferry MS Estonia are set to begin next week, head of the international preliminary assessment committee Rene Arikas received authorization to use millions allocated for the investigation just two weeks ago.

What will happen from July 8?

We will dispatch our research vessels on July 8. Estonia will use multifunctional icebreaker EVA-316 that will serve as the operations base, offering the crew, scientists and engineers lodging and catering, as well as participating in the surveys. It will be met by Stockholm University’s research vessel Elektra that will be in charge of more complicated sonar and seabed surveys. The aim of surveys is to get a picture of the seabed, its geography and the exact location of the wreck. We will map the location and extent of hull damage. We will make public as much of the material as possible.

Will some material remain classified?

Yes, of course. Because we will be using an underwater robot and also filming the ferry’s interior, it is likely we will stumble upon victims’ personal effects and possibly dead bodies. We will be blurring those shots, while all raw material will be kept.

Can we be sure parts of the material will not end up classified for 75 years?

There are no such plans today, while it cannot be completely ruled out. We will have a very detailed 3D image of the seabed. Classifying detailed raw data of the seafloor is standard practice. Because we will be in Finnish economic waters, the decision will be theirs.

Who make up the Estonian team?

Five people will participate from Estonia. Three people will come from the Estonian Safety Investigation Bureau – yours truly, Elerin Urbalu (chief specialist of shipwreck investigation) and a third person whose name will be revealed in the coming days. Hydrographer Peeter Ude was confirmed as the representative of MS Estonia victims. There will also be a representative of the media.

An expert will be representing victims’ next of kin?

Yes, it was their decision and suits me just fine.

The project is colossal. How big is your team?

I am the only one from Estonia at this time. I will have three colleagues from Finland and four from Sweden.

You are alone! Estonia should be in charge of the project.

Yes, putting together the project team has taken a fair bit of time. We had plans for six people. I hope we will get there in the near future.

Why weren’t they appointed long ago?

It is an unusual process for the state. It is a unique project, which is why decisions take time. It is unfortunate, while we need to work with what we have.

Therefore, state officials have not been up to their task in terms of allowing you to do your job?

I can neither confirm nor deny that. Yes, the process is late. I hope we will find a solution.

Estonia allocated several million euros for the investigation some time ago. When did you receive authorization to use the money?

Legal authorization came in June. We are talking two weeks ago.

Why did it take so long?

I believe that too is tied to the project’s unusual nature creating legal basis for which takes time.

How have you been able to get any work done so far?

We have largely relied on help from other state institutions. Swedish colleagues have also been a great help.

Therefore, the initiative has once again slipped into Swedish hands because they have the people and funding they need?

Definitely not. I can assure you that all the decisions we have made are on my desk.

Why haven’t you risen up and demanded powers that would allow you to do your job?

Problems in terms of completing the preliminary assessment of the MS Estonia wreck on time have been highlighted on numerous occasions.

It seems to me that efforts have been made to hinder your progress.

Difficult to say, while it is also difficult to refute.

Does the Estonian Safety Investigation Bureau have the necessary qualification to conduct complicated international tenders the investigation requires?

We do not have the resources to complete these tenders. The procurement volume totals €6 million. We will definitely need a partner, while finding one has proved much harder than we anticipated.

Why is that?

Once more, it is tied to the unique nature of the project. We do not have an institution capable of handling these particular tenders in this volume. Negotiations have seen Eesti Energia offer to help that has now been secured with a government decision.

Would you have wanted to start much sooner?

Yes, of course. We had technical preparedness in early April.

How will you stay on schedule with such delays? We have been promised a final report by next summer.

We will not be able to keep to the schedule we put together in March.