The Estonia disaster: A bottomless source of learning

The sinking of the Estonia ro-ro passenger ferry stands out as one of the most disastrous accidents in modern times. The tragedy claimed 852 lives and the wreck was declared a marine graveyard, says Dr Torkel Soma, Senior partner at Sayfr, who has analysed the accident reports and explains why a new investigation may reveal more than the newly identified hole in the hull and should go beyond that narrow focus.


Our review revealed two things. First of all, the Estonia scenario followed more of a typical pattern of major accidents, than previously anticipated. The combination of low Openness and weak management of Dilemmas is similar to several other accidents such as those involving the Titanic, Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon where people spoke up but nobody did anything about it. This plus the Diana II incident also demonstrates that the failures were actually known 18 months prior to the accident. The learning across organizations should be an area of increased focus on the part of shipping companies, yards and classification societies.

Secondly, the investigation failed to establish the facts that would rule out alternative scenarios. When survivors have experienced something different to what the official investigation report says, one party must be wrong. This, combined with the impression that the survivors were not properly interviewed, means the investigation can easily be questioned. A new investigation may reveal more than the newly identified hole in the hull of Estonia and should go beyond that narrow focus. New insights into the watertight doors, the military cargo on board and the timing of the sequence of events should be more thoroughly investigated. One thing is for sure; the Estonia accident will provide an almost bottomless source of learning far beyond ship design.

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Dr. Torkel Soma, senior partner at SAYFR
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