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7.1 Summary of the operation

The ESTONIA sank in international waters in Finland's Search and Rescue Region (SRR), in its Archipelago Sea maritime SRR under the responsibility of the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) in Turku. Consequently, Finland was responsible for the overall co-ordination of the Search and Rescue (SAR) operation.
On the night of the accident there were four large passenger ferries on the Finland - Sweden route, the Mariella and the Silja Europa sailing westwards and the Isabella and the Silja Symphony eastwards. Another passenger ferry, the Finnjet, was sailing from Finland to Germany.
The first distress call was received from the ESTONIA at about 0122 hrs and was answered by the MARIELLA, which was north-east of and closest to the ESTONIA. When the distress call was heard on the Silja Symphony, a tape recorder was turned on to record the radio traffic.

CSS = Co-ordinator Surface Search
DO = Duty Officer
DSC = Digital Selective Call
EDO = Emergency Duty Officer
GMDSS = Global Maritime Distress and Safety System
HF = High Frequency
MF = Medium Frequency
MRCC = Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre
MRSC = Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Subcentre
OSC = On-Scene Commander
SAR = Search and Rescue
SDO = Stand-by Duty Officer
SRR = Search and Rescue Region
VHF = Very High Frequency

Note: Times given in this chapter are quoted from the various log-books, reports and testimonies. For this reason times stated for the same event may differ by several minutes, depending on source.

A second distress call from the ESTONIA was received at 0124 hrs by 14 radio stations. One of these was MRCC Turku, which assumed control of the SAR operation.
At 0129 hrs the ESTONIA's position became known, and after receiving the distress message vessels in the vicinity turned towards the scene of the accident. The MARIELLA was by that time about nine nautical miles away from the ESTONIA. The Silja Europa, which had direct radio contact with the ESTONIA during the distress traffic, assumed control of the distress radio traffic and at 0205 hrs MRCC Turku designated her master as the On-Scene Commander (OSC).
After receiving the distress call MRCC Turku alerted rescue units and those responsible for the management of the rescue services. The first units to be alerted were the coast guard patrol vessel TURSAS at 0126 hrs and stand-by maritime rescue helicopter OH-HVG in Turku at 0135 hrs. The helicopter took off at 0230 hrs. MRCC Turku formally designated the situation as a major accident at 0230 hrs and the appropriate alarms were initiated.
At 0142 hrs the MARIELLA informed Helsinki Radio about the accident. Instead of transmitting a Mayday Relay Helsinki Radio transmitted a Pan-Pan message at 0150 hrs.
Maritime Rescue Subcentre (MRSC) Mariehamn informed MRCC Stockholm of the accident at 0152 hrs, whereupon the alerting of Swedish maritime rescue helicopters was initiated. The first of these, stand-by helicopter Q 97, took off at 0250 hrs.
MRCC Helsinki notified MRCC Tallinn of the accident at 0255 hrs.
The MARIELLA was the first vessel to reach the scene of the accident, at 0212 hrs. At this time many persons, liferafts, lifeboats and lifejackets could be seen in the water. People were heard screaming in the sea. At 0230 hrs the SILJA EUROPA arrived and by 0320 hrs all five passenger ferries had reached the scene of the accident.
OH-HVG arrived as the first helicopter at the scene of the accident at 0305 hrs, and Q 97 arrived at 0350 hrs.
About 0450 hrs there were four helicopters and eight vessels on the scene, and the number of rescue units continued to increase. The TURSAS arrived at 0500 hrs. By 1200 hrs 19 vessels and 19 helicopters had arrived to participate. In addition three aircraft assisted in the search and in the control of the radio traffic.
The helicopters used rescue men and winches to pick people up from the sea and liferafts. Two helicopters transferred survivors to the nearest passenger ferries, while the others flew them to land-based assembly points.
The vessels did not launch their own man-over-board (MOB) boats or lifeboats due to heavy weather. Instead, life-rafts were lowered to the sea and were then raised with survivors transferred from the ESTONIA's liferafts. The ISABELLA lowered its rescue slide, and 16 survivors were rescued by being pulled up it.
The last survivor was rescued at about 0900 hrs. After this, the helicopters and vessels searched for and brought up bodies from the sea and from rafts.
The helicopters operated in the area from the early morning for about 15 hours. Most of the vessels searched the whole day and were released from their duties in the evening. The last vessel to be released was the Silja Europa which left the area about 2030 hrs, relieved by the TURSAS, whose master was appointed Co-ordinator Surface Search (CSS) until 3 October.
The vessels rescued 34 survivors and the helicopters rescued 104 survivors. One rescued person later died in hospital. Ninety-four bodies were recovered from the sea. Missing persons totalled 757.

7.2 The rescue organisation

7.2.1 General

The basis of the international rules covering the search for and rescue of human beings at sea is the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (the SAR Convention). This entered into force in 1985 and Sweden and Finland have ratified it. Some of the Convention's provisions deal with the organisation of maritime rescue services and international co-operation in this respect. These include the decision to establish Search and Rescue Regions (SRR) in agreement with neighbouring countries, each with at least one Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC), and if necessary subordinate centres known as Maritime Rescue Subcentres (MRSC).
The Convention also contains provisions governing the duties and operational procedures of these rescue centres. According to the provisions an MRCC is “a unit responsible for promoting efficient organisation of search and rescue (SAR) services and for co-ordinating the conduct of SAR operations within an SRR”. If the position of the ship is known the responsibility for initiating SAR operation will be that of the MRCC or MRSC in which area the ship is located.
As well as in the SAR Convention, the tasks of an MRCC are laid down in the IMO Search and Rescue Manual and in national provisions. Some of their main tasks are summarised below:

  • An MRCC prepares detailed plans for conduct of SAR operations in its own area. Each MRCC and MRSC maintains up-to-date information relevant to SAR operations in its area.
  • An MRCC should be in a constant state of operational readiness.
  • When an MRCC receives a distress signal, it must establish the facts of the situation, so as to determine the state of emergency and decide on the extent of the operation required.
  • The MRCC initiates and co-ordinates the operation through the available rescue units in accordance with a plan of action.
  • The MRCC notifies the owner of the vessel and the appropriate authorities of the operations being launched. Other MRCCs and MRSCs and rescue units which may be concerned must also be notified and kept informed of developments.
  • When the emergency no longer exists, or further search seems useless, the MRCC terminates the operation and notifies the authorities and individuals who had previously been informed.
  • The sphere of authority of the MRCC in each country is established by national provisions.

The IMO Search and Rescue Manual (IMOSAR) is a supplement to the SAR Convention. It provides guidelines for a common maritime SAR policy, encouraging all coastal states to develop their organisations on similar lines and enabling adjacent states to co-operate and provide mutual assistance.
The IMO Merchant Ship Search and Rescue Manual (MERSAR) is a second manual based on the SAR Convention. This contains guidelines for masters of ships that may be called upon to act in connection with SAR operations.
The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) is the most important convention dealing with maritime safety. It contains provisions concerning the responsibility of the master of a ship when he becomes aware of an emergency at sea involving a risk to human life. It also enjoins each Contracting Government to ensure that any necessary arrangements are made for coast watching and for the rescue of persons in distress at sea around its coast.
The Radio Regulations (RR) appurtenant to the International Telecommunication Convention contain provisions governing communications in a distress situation.

7.2.2 Finland


At the time of the accident the rescue services in Finland consisted of three parts, the General Rescue Service, the Aeronautical SAR Service, and the Maritime SAR Service.
The Ministry of the Interior was responsible for the general management and co-ordination of the rescue services.
The General Rescue Service covered operations related to fires and general rescue operations carried out by the local rescue services, such as the fire brigades, the police, the medical centres and ambulance units as well as the auxiliary volunteer organisations, e.g. the National Commission for Volunteer SAR Services. The Finnish Lifeboat Society co-ordinated voluntary SAR services at sea.
The Aeronautical SAR Service covered rescue operations concerning aircraft or carried out with aircraft. It also supported the General Rescue Service and the Maritime SAR Service. The responsible authority for the Aeronautical SAR services was the Civil Aviation Administration, under the Ministry of Transportation and Communications.
The Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordination Centre (ARCC) for Southern Finland was in Tampere.

Maritime SAR service

The maritime SAR operations in Finland were governed by the Maritime Search and Rescue Act and Decree. The Act and Decree defined the authorities which had to participate in maritime SAR services and their following functions:

  • The Frontier Guard carried out mari-time SAR operations and attended to the planning, management and supervision of maritime SAR services as well as to the co-ordination of the operation.
  • The Defence Forces watched over marine areas in order to detect and locate emergencies. It also participated in SAR operations.
  • The National Maritime Administration attended to distress and safety communications and to the co-ordination of these, and participated in SAR services operations.
  • The police, the National Board of Customs, the Road Administration and the local rescue authorities participated in SAR operations.
  • The health care authorities attended to the medical aspects of rescue operations.
  • The aviation authorities participated in maritime rescue operations through the aeronautical SAR organisation.
  • Helsinki Radio was a national coast radio station, owned by Telecom Finland, from which the National Maritime Administration purchased distress and safety radio communication services.


Finland's SRR encompassed Finnish territorial waters as well as international waters as agreed with neighbouring countries. The region was divided into three maritime rescue regions, each with its own MRCC, situated in Helsinki, Turku and Vaasa. The accident took place in the Archipelago Sea Maritime SRR, under MRCC Turku.
Each MRCC was operated by the Frontier Guard. MRCC Helsinki was manned by staff of the headquarters of its Gulf of Finland Coast Guard Section, MRCC Turku by those of the headquarters of its Archipelago Sea Coast Guard Section and MRCC Vaasa by those of the headquarters of its Gulf of Bothnia Coast Guard Section. Each MRCC was headed by a commander of the coast guard section or an officer designated by him and assisted when necessary by a maritime rescue expert group. This group consisted of the authorities mentioned in the Maritime SAR Decree, representatives of volunteer SAR services, and other experts as needed.
Under MRCC Turku there were MRSC Mariehamn and MRSC Turku. MRSC operations were directed by the commander of the respective coast guard sub-district, assisted when necessary by an expert group. MRSC Turku located at Pärnäinen in the island of Nauvo, was a combined maritime traffic and coast guard centre also known as Turku Radio.
The MRCCs were manned around the clock to a readiness to receive distress messages 24 hours a day and initiate rescue operations. During office hours, two to three persons worked in an MRCC, a duty officer (DO), a radio operator and the chief officer of the centre. Outside office hours the practice varied, with one or two persons, depending on the resources of the coast guard section. However, the radio operators worked in regular shifts. A stand-by duty officer (SDO) and a coast guard emergency duty officer (EDO) were on stand-by at home, ready to arrive for advanced operational management at one hour's notice.
Outside office hours an MRSC was manned by only one person. However, MRSC Turku, as a maritime traffic centre and rescue subcentre, was manned by two.

Planning for major accidents

In each SRR there was a plan outlining operations in the event of a major accident. For the Archipelago Sea Maritime SRR the major accident rescue plan was adopted on 18 June 1991. The main elements of the plan were risk assessments, the basis for SAR operations, the SAR plan, communications and public information. Separate annexes included diagrams and illustrations of the chain of command for SAR, alarm arrangements, assembly points and radio communications.
The applicability of the plan had been tested in several SAR exercises involving simulated accidents to passenger ferries.
The tasks of the rescue leaders of MRCC Turku according to the plan were (Supplement):

the duty officer

  • to know the readiness situation of the rescue units,
  • to keep a radio log of communications traffic and mark the information on the situation map,
  • to order the most rapidly operational maritime rescue units to the scene of an accident, (to conduct rescue operations and obtain a detailed assessment of the situation,
  • to alert the SDO and the EDO,
  • to start general alerting according to the alarm diagram,
  • to order the latest weather reports and forecasts, and to order drift calculations if needed.

the stand-by duty officer

  • to alert further resources if needed,
  • to alert the commander and other necessary personnel,
  • to inform the headquarters of the frontier guard, the adjacent coast guard section, the Ministry of Environment and the shipping company affected,
  • to draft a press release and publish it.

the emergency duty officer

  • to lead the operation as an assistant or deputy to the commander,
  • to organise the work of the maritime rescue expert group,
  • to inform neighbouring states.

Further tasks were addressed to the MRCC generally, not assigned to individuals.

Other rescue resources

When operating at sea, coast guard vessels, patrol boats and helicopters were at the highest readiness to participate in SAR missions. Maritime SAR helicopters at base during office hours were on almost immediate take-off alert. At other times, on-duty helicopters were at the highest readiness (one hour).

7.2.3 Sweden

The basis for Sweden's maritime SAR services - in addition to the international conventions mentioned under 7.2.1 - was the 1986 Swedish Rescue Act which was drafted to correspond with these conventions. The maritime SAR service was one part of the national SAR services.
The National Maritime Administration was responsible for Sweden's maritime SAR service.
Maritime SAR operations in Sweden's SRR in the northern Baltic were conducted and co-ordinated by MRCC Stockholm located at Telia Mobitel AB's coast radio station in Stockholm. Under contract to the Maritime Administration, Telia Mobitel AB provided distress and safety watch-keeping as well as maritime SAR co-ordination services. In the event of a maritime SAR effort the coast radio station personnel could be used to support MRCC normal manning in accordance with an agreed personnel plan. The MRCC was always manned by a maritime SAR duty officer and a deputy duty officer. Another deputy was on thirty minutes stand-by.
The maritime rescue units used consisted of state-owned vessels, helicopters and aircraft, and vessels belonging to the Swedish Sea Rescue Institution. Both the Navy and the Air Force had helicopters suitable for maritime SAR missions (Boeing Kawasaki 107 and Super Puma, respectively).
The Aeronautical Co-ordination Centre (ARCC) was at Arlanda Airport outside Stockholm. ARCC Arlanda commanded all military helicopters in SAR operations and was responsible for alerting civilian air units.
To co-ordinate rescue operations, primarily on land, and to provide alarm services, a publicly-owned special company had been formed, SOS Alarm. This company had 20 SOS centres, together covering the whole of Swedish territory. Each regional centre had agreements with the regional medical services on the basis of which they could alert hospitals and prepare them when a major accident had happened.

7.2.4 Estonia

In Estonia the National Maritime Administration was responsible for the SAR operations at sea in accordance with the Estonian Merchant Shipping Code. To perform this function, the Maritime Administration established the Coast Guard Department, which besides maritime SAR matters also dealt with the localisation and combating of marine pollution.
Although Estonia had not ratified the SAR Convention before the accident, the coast guard service acted in accordance with the Convention as closely as possible.
The MRCC was situated in Tallinn and was manned round the clock. If the situation called for it, the co-ordinators called in other experts.
MRCC Tallinn carried out maritime SAR operations in co-operation with the National Border Guard Administration, the Estonian State Sea Inspection Agency, the Estonian Lifesaving Association, the Estonian National Rescue Board and ARCC Tallinn.

7.2.5 Co-operation

Finland and Sweden

An agreement between Finland and Sweden on maritime and aeronautical SAR and a protocol thereto entered into force on 20 March 1994. This agreement replaced one of 1982.
The agreement states that the border between the maritime and aeronautical rescue services of the respective countries is also the border of the flight information regions (FIR). It also covers notification, mutual assistance, joint rescue exercises, regular tests of the communications between the states, mutual visits of rescue service experts and exchange of information and experience on rescue services.
Co-operation since 1982 has included maritime SAR exercises in 1990 and 1992 concerning simulated accidents to passenger ferries.
Practical SAR co-operation has primarily been between MRCC Turku and MRCC Stockholm. MRSC Mariehamn has been in frequent contact with MRCC Stockholm, primarily in connection with maritime SAR in the Åland Sea and the southern part of the Gulf of Bothnia.

Finland and Estonia

Finland and Estonia entered into an interim agreement on maritime SAR on 15 June 1992, under which the border between the rescue areas is the same as the border between the respective flight information regions (FIR). The arrangements regarding operational and notification obligations in the event of a maritime emergency are the same as in the agreement between Finland and Sweden.
In addition to this agreement, the Finnish Frontier Guard and the Estonian Border Guard concluded on 24 May 1994 a protocol on co-operation in saving human lives at sea and on the related air operations.
Estonia appointed the National Maritime Administration as responsible maritime SAR authority and the Coast Guard operations centre as MRCC Tallinn with effect from 1 January 1993.
The bodies responsible for practical operations are the headquarters of the Gulf of Finland Coast Guard Section and the headquarters of the Estonian Border Guard.
The arrangements for meetings between representatives of the respective parties are the same as in the agreement between Finland and Sweden.
After the interim agreement entered into force, a joint maritime rescue exercise concerning a simulated accident to a passenger ferry off Helsinki was organised jointly by Finland, Estonia and the Russian Federation on 21 October 1992.
Between 1992 and 1994 Finnish and Estonian maritime rescue authorities and volunteers have met considerably more often than required by the agreement, to develop co-operation in maritime SAR matters.

Sweden and Estonia

At the time of the accident there were no maritime SAR co-operation agreements between Sweden and Estonia.
However, since 1991 Sweden has trained personnel from Estonia in SAR management and co-ordination. Courses and seminars have been conducted in Sweden and Estonia.

7.3 The maritime radio distress and safety systems and the distress traffic

7.3.1 The maritime radio systems

The SOLAS convention requires that all passenger vessels on international voyages and all cargo vessels of at least 300 tons gross are equipped with a maritime radio station for distress and safety. There are two maritime radio systems in use, an old one here termed the pre-Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (pre-GMDSS), and a new one, the GMDSS. All vessels and coast radio stations must change to the GMDSS during a transition period ending on 1 February 1999. During this period, vessels may be equipped with either system.
In the old system the radio station on board a vessel may be either a radiotelegraph station or a radiotelephone station. The international distress and safety frequencies are: 500 kHz for radiotelegraphy and 2182 kHz and VHF channel 16 for radiotelephony. In a radiotelegraph station all these frequencies are required and a vessel must carry a radio officer holding a radiotelegraph operator's certificate. For radiotelephone stations the telephone frequencies are required and the station is operated by deck officers holding a radiotelephone operator's general certificate (GOC).
In the GMDSS every ship while at sea shall be capable of transmitting ship-to-shore distress alerts by at least two separate and independent means. Therefore the equipment of the radio station on board a vessel is governed by the sea area of sailing. Four sea areas exist: A1 (VHF communication), A2 (MF communication), A3 (satellite communication) and A4 (HF communication). All ships must also be capable of receiving shore-to-ship distress alerts, and of transmitting and receiving ship-to-ship distress alerts and SAR co-ordinating communications. Except when satellite communications are used, the communication is initiated with a digital selective call (DSC), which is received fully automatically by other stations. The international distress and safety frequencies for DSC are: VHF channel 70, MF 2187.5 kHz, and five frequencies in the HF band. After contact by DSC the stations shift to the distress and safety frequencies for radiotelephony: on VHF to channel 16 and on MF to 2182 kHz. The radio station on board a vessel is operated by deck officers holding a general operator's certificate or a restricted operator's certificate (ROC).
A reserve source of electrical power must be provided on every ship to supply the radio installation, for conducting distress and safety radio communication in the event of failure of the ship's main and emergency power sources.
In both systems, the radio equipment on board a vessel also includes an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB). The EPIRB is a small radio buoy of “float-free” structure. If the vessel sinks, the buoy is released, rises to the surface and begins to transmit a distress alert. Three (or two) portable VHF radiotelephones are also required. They can accompany the lifeboats or liferafts when the vessel is abandoned.
With the pre-GMDSS a vessel in distress alerts primarily other vessels in the vicinity. With the GMDSS the intention is for the distress alert always to be routed to shore, primarily to rescue co-ordination centres. At the same time, other vessels in the vicinity will be alerted. Both systems can be used to transmit, on behalf of others, a distress message - Mayday Relay (pre-GMDSS) or Distress Alert Relay (GMDSS) - e.g. when the vessel in distress cannot itself transmit a message or when further assistance is required.
Distress traffic must always be initiated by using the procedures specified by the Radio Regulations. With the old system for radiotelegraphy on 500 kHz, a radiotelegraph alarm signal must be transmitted, and for radiotelephony on 2182 kHz, a radiotelephone alarm signal must be transmitted. The purpose of the alarm signals is to arise attention and to turn on the muted loudspeakers of the radiotelegraph and radiotelephone auto alarm receivers keeping automatic watch on 500 kHz and 2182 kHz, respectively. After the alarm signal, a distress call is transmitted, followed by the distress message. On VHF channel 16, only a distress call and a distress message are transmitted.
In the GMDSS the distress traffic is initiated on 2187.5 kHz and VHF channel 70 by transmitting a distress alert using DSC. After DSC acknowledgement, primarily by a coast station, the distress traffic is shifted to the radiotelephone distress and safety frequency on the band where the acknowledgement was received.
The ESTONIA was equipped in compliance with the old system with a radiotelegraph station and a radiotelephone system. The radio installation and the competence of those serving it satisfied the SOLAS requirements. For details of the equipment, see 3.2.9. Regarding the formal competence of the crew, see 4.2.2. In addition various crew members had some 30 - 35 portable VHF maritime radiotelephones (including channel 16) not indicated in the vessel's radio licence.
The radio officer of the ESTONIA had special watchkeeping hours, 1900 - 0100 hrs, during which he kept watch on the radiotelegraph distress and safety frequency 500 kHz. At other times, the frequency was monitored by a radiotelegraph auto alarm. The radiotelephone frequencies 2182 kHz and VHF channel 16 were monitored on the bridge.

7.3.2 Distress and safety watch


Every vessel at sea must keep continuous radio watch for distress and safety. Vessels with radiotelegraph stations keep watch 500 kHz, 2182 kHz and VHF channel 16. The frequency 500 kHz is watched by a radio officer or by the radiotelegraph auto alarm, while 2182 kHz is watched with a loudspeaker, filtered loudspeaker or muted loudspeaker on the bridge. This latter method where the equipment functions as a radiotelephone auto alarm is the most common. VHF channel 16 is watched on the bridge. Vessels with radiotelephone stations keep continuous watch on 2182 kHz and VHF channel 16 as above. Vessels with GMDSS radio stations keep automatic watch by DSC on the bridge on VHF channel 70 and, if the radio installation is for other sea areas than A1, also on 2187.5 kHz. During the transition period - ending in February 1999 - GMDSS vessels must also keep watch on 2182 kHz and VHF channel 16.

Coast stations

Several rescue co-ordination centres and other coast stations keep continuous watch on 2182 kHz and VHF channel 16. Some rescue co-ordination centres and many other coast stations keep watch on 500 kHz. At the beginning of 1993, the Finnish Maritime Administration established sea area A2 covering the Gulf of Finland, the Northern Baltic and the Gulf of Bothnia. Continuous distress and safety watch is kept on 2187.5 kHz by DSC, by the Finnish rescue co-ordination centres and by Helsinki Radio.
At night the radio traffic in the Baltic area on distress frequencies 500 kHz, 2182 kHz and 2187.5 kHz can usually be received throughout the entire Baltic, unless the frequencies are badly disturbed. The ranges over which messages may be transmitted on the VHF channels depend greatly on the structure and height of the antenna and are normally under 100 km.
According to the List of Coast Stations at least the stations given in Table 7.1 were keeping watch on the distress and safety frequencies in the Baltic on the night of the accident.

Table 7.1 Stations keeping watch on the night of the accident.
Coast station500
Helsinki Radio, Finland (controlled also Mariehamn Radio)XXXX 
MRCC Turku, Finland XXX 
MRSC Turku, Finland XXX 
MRCC Helsinki, Finland XXX 
MRCC Vaasa, Finland XXX 
Tallinn Radio, EstoniaXXX  
Stockholm Radio, SwedenXXXX 
Tingstäde Radio, SwedenXXX  
Karlskrona Radio, SwedenXXX  
Riga Radio, LatviaXXX  
Ventspils Radio, LatviaXXX  
Klaipeda Radio, LithuaniaXXX  
Kaliningrad Radio, RussiaXXX  
Gdynia Radio, PolandXXX  
Witowo Radio, PolandXXXX 
Szczecin Radio, PolandXXX  
Rügen Radio, GermanyXXXX 
Lyngby Radio, DenmarkXXX X
Leningrad Radio, Russia (St. Petersburg Radio)X XX  
Vyborg Radio, RussiaX X  

On VHF channel 16, Helsinki Radio and MRCC Turku were using the same base stations in Utö, Järsö and Hanko, near the site of the accident. MRSC Turku was also using the Utö base station.
Channel 16 was also being watched by MRSC Mariehamn, MRSC Hanko, coast guard stations in Kökar, Storklubb and Hiittinen and central pilot stations in Nauvo and Hanko, near the site of the accident.

7.3.3 The recorded distress traffic

The facts regarding the distress traffic from the ESTONIA, which was transmitted on VHF channel 16, are based on recordings and log entries regarding the traffic. The distress traffic was initiated by the second officer A. Two minutes later the third officer took over as operator. The initiation of the distress traffic was recorded only by MRSC Turku. Except for the initiation, the distress traffic was recorded by the SILJA SYMPHONY among others. This recording has the best quality.
MRCC Turku had a system that should continuously record all radio traffic on VHF channel 16. However, the equipment did not function properly. Thus, the beginning of the recording primarily contains only its own traffic.
The distress traffic was conducted mainly in either Swedish or Finnish; English was used very little.
The distress traffic started with a call (The Commission names this call as 1st Mayday call and the second one as 2nd Mayday call) which reads as follows: “Mayday Mayday Estonia please”. Shortly afterwards a second call - “Mayday Mayday Silja Europa” - was transmitted.
The Mayday calls were received by 14 ship- and shore-based radio stations (Table 7.2).

Table 7.2 Receiving radio stations and recorded times.
Radio stationFirst
Mayday call
Mayday call
Silja Europa0120 hrsyeslog book
Anette0120 hrs yes, no timelog book, officer
Antares0120 hrs yes no timeextract from log book
Silja Symphony0122 hrs0123 hrslog book, lookout
MRSC Turku0123 hrs0124 hrsoperator, recording
Turku Radio0123 hrs0125 hrsoperator, radio log
MRCC Turku-0124 hrsoperator, radio log
Utö coastal fortress-0124 hrsradio operator, radio log
Kökar coast guard station -0124 hrsradio log
Finnjet-0124 hrslog book
MRSC Mariehamn-0125 hrsradio log
Finnmerchant-0130 hrssecond officer
Mariellayes, no time yes, no timelog book, protocol
Garden-yes, no timemaster

It is evident from the table that there are considerable differences between the times for recording the two Mayday calls. At least five radio stations, including MRCC Turku, logged the 2nd Mayday call as received at 0124 hrs. Counting backwards in tape recordings from this moment, the most probable time of the 1st Mayday call was just before 0122 hrs. However, this time is uncertain, the margin of error being plus/minus two minutes. Despite the imprecision of this timing, the transcript in Table 7.3 is given second-by-second so that the time difference between different messages can be seen; the relative precision of the timing is good up to the time the tape was turned over.

Table 7.3 The distress traffic.
Recording by MRSC Turku:
-2.0501:21.55Estonia Mayday Mayday Estonia please (unclear)
-1.4601:22.14MariellaEstoniaEstonia, Mariella
-1.2601:22.34MariellaEstoniaEstonia, Mariella over
Recording by the SILJA SYMPHONY:
-0.4901:23.11Estonia Europa, Estonia, Silja Europa, Estonia
-0.4101:23.19Silja EuropaEstoniaEstonia this is Silja Europa replying on channel 16.
-0.3401:23.26Estonia Silja Europa
-0.2701:23.33Silja EuropaEstoniaEstonia this is Silja Europa on channel 16.
-0.0601:23.54Estonia Silja Europa, Viking, Estonia
-0.0201:23.58MariellaEstoniaEstonia, Estonia
0.0001:24.00Estonia Mayday Mayday
0.0501:24.05Estonia Silja Europa, Estonia
0.0701:24.07Silja EuropaEstoniaEstonia, Silja Europa. Are you calling Mayday?
0.2801:24.28Silja EuropaEstoniaEstonia, what's going on? Can you reply?
0.3101:24.31Estonia This is Estonia. Who is it there? Silja Europa, Estonia
0.4001:24.40Silja EuropaEstoniaYes, Estonia this is Silja Europa
0.4201:24.42EstoniaSilja EuropaGood morning. Do you speak Finnish?
0.4501:24.45Silja EuropaEstoniaYes, I speak Finnish.
0.4601:24.46EstoniaSilja EuropaYes, we have a problem here now, a bad list to the right side. I believe that it was twenty, thirty degrees. Could you come to our assistance and also ask Viking Line to come to our assistance?
0.5801:24.58Silja EuropaEstoniaYes, Viking Line is just behind us and they surely got the information. Can you give your position?
1.0401:25.04EstoniaSilja Europa…(unclear)…we have black out, we cannot get it now. I cannot say it.
1.1201:25.12Silja EuropaEstoniaOkay, understood, we'll take measures.
1.2401:25.24Mariella Silja Europa, Mariella
1.2601:25.26Silja EuropaMariellaYes Europa here, Mariella... Mariella this is Europa 16.
1.3301:25.33MariellaSilja EuropaDid you determine their position, is it they who are here on our port side?
1.3901:25.39Silja EuropaMariellaNo, I didn't get any position from them, but they must be here in the neighbourhood, they have 20 - 30 degrees starboard list and black out.
1.5001:25.50MariellaSilja EuropaI think that they are on our port side here approximately 45 degrees.
1.5601:25.56Silja EuropaMariellaOkay, yes, I am just waking up the skipper.
2.4101:26.41Estonia Silja Europa, Estonia
2.4401:26.44Silja EuropaEstoniaEstonia, Silja Europa
2.4501:26.45EstoniaSilja EuropaAre you coming to assistance?
2.4701:26.47Silja EuropaEstoniaYes, we are. Can you tell me if you have an exact position?
2.5001:26.50EstoniaSilja EuropaI cannot say because we have black out here.
2.5401:26.54Silja EuropaEstoniaYes, can you see us, or?
2.5701:26.57EstoniaSilja EuropaYes, I can hear you.
3.0101:27.01Silja EuropaEstoniaOkay, we will start to determine your here now. Just a moment.
3.0701:27.07Silja EuropaEstoniaYes, of course we will come to your assistance, but now we have to determine your position.
3.1501:27.15Mariella Helsinki Radio, Helsinki Radio ...calling on channel 16 ... Helsinki
4.1701:28.17Silja Europa Mariella, Silja Europa
4.2501:28.25MariellaSilja EuropaYes, this is Mariella
4.2701:28.27Silja EuropaMariellaYes, have you any visual contact at all with Estonia?
4.3101:28.31MariellaSilja EuropaNo
4.3501:28.35Silja EuropaMariellaWe must start and try to find her somewhere, it is a bit difficult to say as they didn't give any position.
4.4301:28.43Estonia Silja Europa, Estonia
4.4501:28.45Silja EuropaEstoniaYes, Estonia, Silja Europa
4.4701:28.47EstoniaSilja EuropaI'll tell you our position now.
4.5001:28.50Silja EuropaEstoniaYes, go ahead.
4.5201:28.52EstoniaSilja Europa58 latitude, just a moment ... 22 degrees.
5.0101:29.01Silja EuropaEstoniaOkay, 22 degrees, understood, we're on our way there.
5.0501:29.05EstoniaSilja EuropaSo 59 latitude and 22 minutes.
5.1601:29.16Silja EuropaEstonia59.22 minutes and longitude?
5.1901:29.19EstoniaSilja Europa21.40 East.
5.2301:29.23Silja EuropaEstonia21.40 East, okay.
5.2701:29.27EstoniaSilja EuropaReally bad, it looks really bad here now.
5.3601:29.36Silja EuropaEstoniaYes, looks bad. We are on our way and it was 21.40.
5.3901:29.39EstoniaSilja Europa... you said (unclear)
5.4201:29.42Silja EuropaEstonia48, okay.

The full text of the distress traffic is in English in Table 7.3. Messages transmitted by the ESTONIA are in bold. For the full transcript of the recordings, see Supplement. After the distress traffic in Table 7.3, the ESTONIA no longer transmits.
Table 7.4 shows times of the other stations' first transmissions on VHF channel 16 in response to the distress of the ESTONIA.

Table 7.4 Other stations’ response times on channel 16.
17.2101:41.21Helsinki Radio
19.2201:43.22SILJA SYMPHONY
20.4401:44.44MRCC Turku

7.3.4 EPIRB beacons

No signals from the ESTONIA's EPIRBs were received, for further details see 8.11.

7.4 Initiation of rescue actions

7.4.1 General

On responding at 0123 hrs to the 1st Mayday call, the Silja Europa became the control station for the distress radio traffic. The other ships and shore-based stations in the area that had received the Mayday calls understood and accepted the resulting situation. When the full importance of the distress messages was understood on board the vessels they began to contact the Silja Europa to verify information received, report their positions and inform her about measures being undertaken.
Helsinki Radio did not receive the ESTONIA's distress message nor the subsequent radio communications. The MARIELLA informed Helsinki Radio by NMT telephone of the distress at 0142 hrs after failing to get contact on channel 16 and on 2182 kHz. On request by the Silja Europa, MRCC Helsinki also alerted Helsinki Radio.
The channel 16 distress traffic transmitted by the ESTONIA did not reach the coast radio stations in Sweden or Estonia because of the distance.
Helsinki Radio transmitted at 0150 hrs a Pan-Pan (urgent message) of the accident instead of a Mayday Relay (distress message), which MRCC Turku had requested several times by telephone, VHF and via MRCC Helsinki. The Pan-Pan message was transmitted to all stations on 2182 kHz and channel 16. These transmissions were not received by the coast radio stations in Sweden or Estonia.

7.4.2 Action

In accordance with the organisation and division of responsibility of the Finnish SAR services, the overall responsibility for the SAR action in the case of the ESTONIA was held by the commander of the Archipelago Sea Coast Guard Section or by the coast guard officer designated by him. The headquarters of the Coast Guard Section in Turku served as the MRCC, where at night a duty officer was prepared to initiate and carry out all relevant coast guard management functions. He was supported by two stand-by duty officers at home on one-hour stand-by.
Two minutes after receiving the 2nd Mayday call MRCC Turku began, at 0126 hrs, to alert the various groups involved according to the diagram in the Major Accident Rescue Plan (Figure 17.1). Important events in the alerting and the rescue operation are summarised in Table 7.5. Only Finnish and Swedish stand-by helicopters and the first five vessels to arrive are mentioned in the table. Events after 0500 hrs are commented on very briefly.

Table 7.5 Important events.
0126MRCC Turku calls MRSC Turku to verify the ESTONIA's distress call and to alert coast guard patrol vessel TURSAS.
0127The Mariella calls Helsinki Radio on channel 16 and on 2182 kHz. No response.
0129The ESTONIA notifies the SILJA EUROPA of her position. Last radio contact with the ESTONIA.
0130MRSC Mariehamn alerts the Åland coast guard area commander.
0130MRSC Turku alerts the TURSAS, ordered to proceed at 0137 hrs.
0131MRSC Mariehamn verifies that MRCC Turku has received the distress call.
0132The MARIELLA turns towards the scene of the accident.
0132Kökar coast guard station verifies that MRSC Mariehamn has received the distress call.
0133MRCC Turku DO alerts SDO.
0133The Finnjet turns towards the accident site.
0134MRSC Turku alerts the coast guard area commander.
0134The Silja Europa calls Helsinki radio on channel 16 with no response.
0135MRCC Turku begins to transmit a message to the beepers of the stand-by crew of the Turku air patrol unit duty maritime rescue helicopter OH-HVG (Super Puma). DO spends five minutes responding to telephone calls from crew members of the alerted stand-by helicopter.
0140SDO arrives at MRCC Turku.
0140The SILJA EUROPA turns towards the scene.
0142The Silja Europa notifies MRCC Helsinki by mobile phone of the ESTONIA's distress call after having unsuccessfully attempted to contact Helsinki Radio on channel 16 and 2182 kHz.
0142The MARIELLA informs Helsinki Radio by mobile phone about the ESTONIA's situation after unsuccessful attempts on channel 16 and 2182 kHz.
0144Helsinki Radio calls the Silja Europa on channel 16.
0145MRCC Helsinki notifies Helsinki Radio of the situation and Helsinki Radio starts to prepare a Pan-Pan message. Agreed by MRCC Helsinki.
0145MRCC Helsinki checks that MRCC Turku knows about the distress. MRCC Turku asks for a Mayday Relay to be transmitted. After that MRCC Helsinki notifies by phone Helsinki Radio to transmit a Mayday Relay.
0145MRCC Turku requests Helsinki Radio on channel 16 to transmit a Mayday Relay.
0145Åland coast guard area commander arrives at MRSC Mariehamn.
0146MRCC Turku alerts the Archipelago Sea Coast Guard Section EDO.
0150The SILJA SYMPHONY turns towards the site.
0150Helsinki Radio begins to transmit a Pan-Pan message on channel 16 and on 2182 kHz, referring to the ESTONIA's Mayday call.
0152MRSC Mariehamn calls MRCC Stockholm to check whether Stockholm knows about the accident. (0155 hrs according to MRCC Stockholm.)
0155The ISABELLA turns towards the site.
0157MRCC Stockholm calls MRCC Helsinki to offer assistance. MRCC Helsinki replies that MRCC Turku is co-ordinating the mission. MRCC Stockholm calls MRCC Turku, receives the most recent information and offers helicopter assistance. (0158 hrs according to MRCC Turku.)
0158MRCC Stockholm alerts ARCC Arlanda and requests that all available rescue helicopters be alerted.
0200MRCC Turku alerts the deputy commander and the commander of the maritime rescue region and of the Archipelago Sea Coast Guard Section, the latter on vacation at home in Espoo.
0203The coast guard EDO arrives at MRCC Turku.
0205MRCC Turku transmits on channel 16 that the master of the Silja Europa has agreed to be, and has been appointed, On-Scene Commander (OSC).
0206MRCC Helsinki notifies MRSC Hanko of the accident.
0207Swedish stand-by helicopter Q 97 (Super Puma) alerted at Visby.
0207MRSC Mariehamn notifies Mariehamn district dispatching centre of the accident.
0209Swedish stand-by helicopter Y 65 (Boeing Kawasaki) alerted at Berga.
0210Maritime inspector alerted at Turku.
0212The MARIELLA arrives, as the first vessel, on the scene.
0215Swedish stand-by helicopter Q 99 (Super Puma) alerted, when on another rescue mission, near southern tip of Öland.
0215MRCC Turku reports the accident to Turku dispatching centre. Fire chief departs for MRCC Turku to participate in expert group.
0218MRCC Turku asks MRCC Helsinki to call out stand-by helicopter OH- HVD (Agusta Bell 412) in Helsinki.
0220Deputy coast guard section commander arrives at MRCC Turku.
0221MRCC Helsinki alerts stand-by helicopter OH-HVD (Agusta Bell 412) at Helsinki flight group.
0222MRCC Turku orders the vessels to make ready their helicopter pads.
0224MRSC Mariehamn contacts air controller to report in to Mariehamn airport.
0230MRCC Turku determines formally that the situation is a major accident and initiates appropriate alarms, e.g. alerting members of the maritime rescue region expert group.
0230MRSC Mariehamn reports to MRCC Stockholm that the ESTONIA has probably sunk, but the information is not confirmed.
0230OH-HVG takes off from Turku.
0230MRCC Turku alerts the county rescue inspector to join the expert group.
0230Turku fire chief and maritime inspector arrive at MRCC Turku.
0230The captain of Y 65 alerts the commanding flight officer, Berga, who orders Y 74 to be readied.
0230The Silja Europa arrives, as the second vessel, at the site.
0238Mariehamn air traffic control officer notifies ARCC Tampere of the accident.
0240The Silja Symphony arrives at the site.
0245Swedish stand-by helicopter Y 68 (Boeing Kawasaki) alerted at Säve.
0250MRCC Stockholm requests the representative of Estline to obtain a passenger manifest.
0250Q 97 takes off from Visby.
0252MRCC Turku requests that ARCC Tampere alerts air force helicopters.
0252The ISABELLA arrives at the scene.
0255MRCC Helsinki asks MRCC Tallinn how many crew and passengers are aboard the ESTONIA. (0300 hrs according to MRCC Tallinn.)
0258ARCC Tampere alerts Finnish air force helicopters.
0300MRCC Tallinn starts its alerting.
0302MRCC Tallinn replies MRCC Turku; aboard the ESTONIA are 679 passengers and 188 crew members.
0305OH-HVG arrives as the first helicopter at the scene.
0305The county rescue inspector arrives at MRCC Turku.
0315MRCC Turku alerts county police counsellor and commander of the patrol flight unit to join maritime rescue expert group.
0315The helicopter flight of the transport flight squadron is alerted at Utti, Finland.
0315MRCC Helsinki informs command centre of the Estonian border guard about the situation.
0320Forensic physician is alerted to join maritime rescue expert group.
0320MRCC Helsinki informs OH-HVD that ESTONIA has sunk, order for take-off.
0320Y 65 takes off from Berga.
0320The FINNJET arrives at the site.
0325Deputy commander of the rescue operations request helicopters to retrieve people from the sea to the nearest ferries.
0328County rescue inspector informs duty officer of the Ministry of the Interior Rescue Department of the accident.
0328County police inspector arrives at MRCC Turku.
0330OH-HVD takes off from Helsinki.
0330MRCC Helsinki informs the EDO at the Frontier Guard staff of the accident.
0330MRSC Mariehamn alerts the Mariehamn police.
0330DO at ESCO tries to contact the RakVere and the Heinland, to send them to the accident site.
0335Forensic physician arrives at MRCC Turku.
0345Commander of the patrol flight unit arrives at MRCC Turku.
0345County governor informed about the accident.
0345MRCC Stockholm orders Swedish coast guard rescue centre to have, if needed, an aircraft as air traffic controller in the area. SE-KVG aircraft in Turku ordered to take part in SAR operation.
0345Y 68 takes off from Säve, via Berga for refuelling.
0350Q 97, the first Swedish helicopter, arrives at the site.
0355Q 99 takes off from Visby, after refuelling following another rescue mission.
0358MRCC Stockholm alerts SOS Alarm centre in Stockholm and asks for hospitals to be alerted.
0358MRCC Tallinn alerts coast guard vessel EVA-207, but she cannot depart due to the weather.
0359MRCC Turku informs MRCC Stockholm by situation report (SITREP) no. 1 “No more assistance required, further assistance, if required, will be informed”.
0400ESCO informs that the RakVere and the HeinlaNd are on their way.
0400Commander of air patrol squadron informed in Rovaniemi, alerts chief of Rovaniemi patrol flight.
0400Finnish stand-by helicopter OH-HVH alerted at Rovaniemi.
0400Y 65 arrives at the site.
0405MRCC Helsinki informs MRCC Tallinn on the situation.
0415Commander of coast guard section arrives at MRCC Turku. MRCC now manned as required by the major accident rescue plan.
0415Danish SAR offers helicopter assistance to ARCC Arlanda.
0422Duty official at Stockholm county council offices informs that three hospitals in the Stockholm area have been alerted.
0425EDO at the Frontier Guard alerts chairman of Planning Commission for the Investigation of Major Accidents.
0425MRCC Helsinki sends the SITREP no. 1 to MRCC Tallinn and the Command Centre (CC) of the Estonian Border Guard. No assistance needed.
0440Q 99 arrives at the site.
0445Stand-by helicopter OH-HVG takes off for Turku to pick up a second rescue man and the air operation co-ordinator to Silja Symphony.
0450Eight vessels and four helicopters on the scene.
0500Coast guard patrol vessel Tursas arrives at the site.
0510OH-HVH takes off from Rovaniemi.
0532OH-HVD arrives at the site.
0645Y 68 arrives at the site.
0650Air operations co-ordinator is put on board the Silja Europa to assist OSC.
0755The FINNJET released.
0900Last survivors found at about 0900 hrs.
0945CSS, assistant and air traffic control officer arrive at the SILJA EUROPA.
1000No more survivors found. Helicopters instructed to lift also bodies from the sea.
1015OH-HVH arrives at the site.
120019 vessels and 19 helicopters on the scene.
1300Air operations co-ordinator and air traffic control officer to SILJA EUROPA.
1320Three vessels and some Swedish helicopters released.
1832OSC informs that search is de-escalated. All merchant vessels released.

7.5 The rescue operation

7.5.1 The sea traffic in the area

The mouth of the Gulf of Finland is the busiest maritime area in the northern Baltic Sea. Here the traffic proceeds towards the southern Baltic or west towards Sweden. Cargo vessel traffic in the Archipelago Sea uses primarily the Utö route. In the western part of the northern Baltic, a traffic route goes between Bogskär lighthouse island and Svenska Björn caisson lighthouse to the Gulf of Bothnia. Vessels entering the Gulf of Finland from the southern Baltic take the southern route, north of Hiiumaa and around the Glotov buoy. Vessels proceeding in the opposite direction take a more northerly route, as determined by the traffic separation scheme.
Off Hanko and Hiiumaa, the route selected by passenger ferry traffic between Finland and Sweden in crossing the northern Baltic is determined by weather conditions. The southern, Sandhamn, route is preferred, the northern, Söderarm, route being used in weather conditions unfavourable for the Sandhamn route.
Passenger ferry traffic between Tallinn and Stockholm follows the northern coast of Estonia in the Gulf of Finland. The route alternatives mentioned above are used when crossing the northern Baltic.
That night the sea traffic in the northern Baltic and in the mouth of the Gulf of Finland was lighter than normal. Because of the forecast heavy wind, fishing vessels and coasters had remained in harbour and Russian river vessels had withdrawn to protected anchorages.
All scheduled passenger ferries were at sea. At midnight the four westbound ferries, the ESTONIA included, were in their usual area at the mouth of the Gulf of Finland. Two passenger ferries were on an eastbound course north of Bogskär lighthouse. Two cargo ferries were on a westerly course south of Hanko, two cargo vessels were passing Utö lighthouse on their way south and two cargo vessels were between Hiiumaa and Bogskär.
Because of the heavy weather, the coast guard vessel from the Archipelago Sea Coast Guard Section, the TURSAS, had anchored at Örö. Twelve government vessels, three of them Swedish, had been engaged in an oil spill control exercise in the Archipelago Sea near Nauvo but were in the Pärnäinen harbour by the time of the accident. Two mine ferries belonging to the Finnish Defence Forces were near Örö, and a Navy minelayer was at Hanko.
Two coast guard vessels from the Gulf of Finland Coast Guard Section were at sea south-west of Helsinki.
Figure 7.1 shows the positions of the vessels at about the time of the accident.

Figure 7.1 Positions of the vessels at the time of the accident.
Click image for close-up
VesselTypeOperatorRouteMax. no. of
1. MariellaPassen-
ger ferry
Viking LineHelsinki - Stock-
2 70048 529
2. Silja EuropaPassen-
ger ferry
Silja LineHelsinki - Stock-
3 00059 912
3. IsabellaPassen-
ger ferry
Viking LineStock-
holm - Helsinki
2 20034 937
4. Silja SymphonyPassen-
ger ferry
Silja LineStock-
holm - Helsinki
2 70058 376
5. FinnjetPassen-
ger ferry
Silja LineHelsinki - Trave-
1 68632 940
6. Fin-
Cargo ferryFinn-
Kotka - Lübeck 21 195
7. Finn-
Cargo ferryFinn-
Helsinki - Lübeck 32 531
8. AntaresCargo ferryFinn-
Turku - Lübeck 19 963
9. AnetteCargo vesselBror Husell Charter-
tehdas - Norrkö-
10. GardenCargo ferryEngshipTurku - Harwich 10 762
11. TursasCoast Guard patrol vesselCoast Guard   
12. HalliOil pollution combatt-
ing vessel
Finnish Environ-
ment Institute/ Finnish Navy
HyljeOil pollution combatt-
ing vessel
Finnish Environ-
ment Institute/ Finnish Navy
SvärtanOil pollution combatt-
ing vessel
The Govern-
ment of Åland
KBVOil pollution combatt-
ing vessel
Swedish Coast Guard   
 Rescue boats    
 Navy and Coast Guard patrol boatsFinnish Navy and Finnish Coast Guard   
 Pilot boatFinnish Maritime Administ-
13. RussaröRescue cruiserFinnish Life-Boat Society   
14. Various Coast Guard boatsFinnish Coast Guard   
 Various Pilot vesselsFinnish Maritime Administ-

7.5.2 General considerations, vessels

The masters' decisions to turn towards the scene of the accident to rescue those in distress also affected the safety of their own vessels, crews, passengers and cargoes. All the masters who received messages about the accident were faced with the same choice. Most decided to proceed to help those in distress, a few vessels received permission to continue their voyage following their request to do so, and one master decided independently not to provide assistance, since he deemed that this would seriously endanger the safety of his vessel and crew.
The first vessels to approach the scene of the accident had to decide independently how best they could help rescue people. The heavy weather prevented, or rendered inadvisable, the lowering of lifeboats or rescue boats. This decision was discussed between the masters. Each vessel prepared to rescue survivors in accordance with her own possibilities. Most lowered rope ladders down the side to the sea. While sailing to the scene of the accident the vessels were made ready to take survivors aboard.
Liferafts were lowered to the sea on wires and then raised again to bring up survivors from the ESTONIA's liferafts. The ISABELLA lowered its rescue slide, and 16 persons were pulled up along it.
In the beginning the search consisted of an attempt to find people and liferafts near the scene of the accident. As dawn broke, the participants grasped the extent of the entire rescue operation.
At 1000 hrs - when no more survivors were found - the vessels proceeded with a systematic search of the area, in formation in the direction of the calculated drift. The vessels reported any victims observed and the helicopters winched them up from the sea. The calculated area, which was patrolled from the air, was searched systematically several times.
Most of the vessels searched the whole day and were released from their duties in the evening. The FINNJET was allowed to leave at 0755 hrs to avoid additional damage caused by the heavy rolling. The ISABELLA, MARIELLA, and SILJA SYMPHONY were released at 1320 hrs. However, as more vessels arrived, the rescue capacity increased.
All merchant vessels, except the SILJA EUROPA, were released at 1832 hrs when darkness fell.
The last vessel to be released was the SILJA EUROPA which left the area at about 2030 hrs, at which time a helicopter picked up the assisting OSC and the air operation co-ordinator and their assistants. Left on the accident scene searching for bodies were government vessels. The SILJA EUROPA was relieved by the TURSAS coastal patrol vessel.
A total of 34 persons were rescued from the ESTONIA's rafts directly to other vessels; the TURSAS rescued one, the MARIELLA 15, the ISABELLA 17 and the SILJA EUROPA one.

7.5.3 Action taken by the vessels


The passenger ferry MARIELLA was closest to the ESTONIA at the time of the distress signal. She had departed from Helsinki, bound for Stockholm, at 1800 hrs.
The officer of the watch was talking on the telephone with the master about reducing speed when the first Mayday call was received. On learning of the call the master went quickly to the bridge. The vessel was nine nautical miles north-east of the ESTONIA at 0132 hrs when she turned towards the site of the accident. When she was four nautical miles away, the radar image of the ESTONIA disappeared at about 0150 - 0155 hrs.
The MARIELLA was the first vessel to reach the assumed scene of the accident, at 0212 hrs. The master ordered an emergency stop at 0220 hrs so that no people or rafts would run foul of the propellers.
When the vessel arrived on the scene many people could be seen in the sea around the vessel, wearing lifejackets, screaming. In addition, lifeboats and rafts were floating on the surface. The vessel threw some 150 lifejackets into the water and launched four liferafts. The bunker door was opened to provide access for the rescue of persons from the sea, but it had to be closed quickly as waves washed on board.
When no people could be seen around the vessel, the master steered carefully with the starboard side to the wind, from one liferaft to the next. Most of the rafts, however, were empty.
Four open liferafts were winched down into the sea from the MARIELLA so that people on board the ESTONIA's rafts could transfer to these. One of the rafts was secured to the MARIELLA's bow and another to her stern. The area between was used to catch the ESTONIA's rafts. The rafts had to be winched manually from the sea, although two large electric drills were used at the bow to help in this work. In this way 13 persons were brought up from the ESTONIA's rafts.
Those persons on board rafts found after 0500 hrs were so exhausted that they could no longer move from one raft to another unaided. At this stage two crew members of the MARIELLA volunteered to be lowered down to her liferafts. Dressed in rescue suits and secured by rope they managed to pull two persons to their own raft, whence they were winched up to deck 8.
All in all, the MARIELLA rescued 15 persons from the ESTONIA's liferafts.
The MARIELLA continued her own rescue work until dawn, by which time the constantly worsening weather prevented her from keeping one side to the wind. She began to roll so heavily as to endanger the safety of her passengers and cargo.
The vessel turned to the wind and proceeded slowly, searching for liferafts. A report of any rafts sighted was made to the helicopters, which lifted people from the rafts and brought them to the vessels and to land-based assembly points. In this way 11 more persons were rescued, and brought by the OH-HVG helicopter to the MARIELLA at 0657 hrs. These survivors were treated by the vessel's own personnel together with three physicians and 30 nurses among the passengers.
One of the survivors was transferred by helicopter to Hanko for hospital treatment for a broken leg.
At 1320 hrs the MARIELLA received permission to continue to Stockholm. The vessel arrived in Stockholm at 2355 hrs with the 25 survivors.


The passenger ferry SILJA EUROPA had departed from Helsinki at 1800 hrs, bound for Stockholm. According to the ship's log and the radio log the 1st Mayday call was received at 0120 hrs. The officer of the watch has stated that transmission was poor and he could not identify the name of the ship.
On receiving the Mayday call, the vessel was 10.5 nautical miles north-west of the ESTONIA. Ten minutes after being informed of the ESTONIA's position the master, according to the DGPS recording, started to turn to heading 134° towards the accident site. At this time ESTONIA's radar image could still be discerned. The recording shows that the distance to the ESTONIA was about 12.5 nautical miles when the turn was completed. At 0205 hrs MRCC Turku appointed the master On-Scene Commander (OSC). The SILJA EUROPA arrived at the scene at 0230 hrs.
The master summoned the command group to the bridge in accordance with the vessel's emergency plan. The group consisted of the master, the chief engineer, the chief officer, the hotel manager and the hotel purser to record the events.
By the time the vessel had turned, the radar image had disappeared. For the rest of the way to the scene, the vessel proceeded cautiously, using searchlights to scour the sea. While approaching the area, the vessel was readied for rescue operations and for taking survivors on board.
When the other passenger ferries were approaching the scene, the master, acting as OSC, allocated operational areas and followed on his radar how the vessels were proceeding to the stations allotted to them in the SAR formation. The OSC concentrated on managing the overall situation, and placed his vessel somewhat away from the others.
Two large liferafts were prepared and one of them was winched down to the sea. This, however, soon drifted away, hit by a wave that opened the locking mechanism thereby releasing it. In addition, rope ladders were lowered along the side of the vessel to the sea.
At 0448 hrs, a man who had been alone in a partially waterlogged liferaft managed to climb up a rope ladder. The vessel was steered so that the raft drifted along its side. On seeing the rope ladder reaching down to the water, the man jumped into the sea, swam to the ladder, grasped it and climbed unaided up to the sixth deck
Several liferafts found and examined were all empty. There were many lifejackets floating in the sea, many still packed. The focus of the rescue operations moved eastwards, since the wind and the waves carried those in the water in this direction.
The OSC managed the operations of the vessels and the helicopters, passed on reports from the vessels to the helicopters and maintained contact with MRCC Turku, providing status reports and relaying instructions from MRCC to the vessels and the helicopters. An air operation co-ordinator was flown out to assist the OSC. He was put on board the SILJA EUROPA at 0650 hrs with two 5 W portable aviation radios to control the air operations. At 0945 hrs the Silja Europa received the assistance of a co-ordinator surface search (CSS), his assistant and an air traffic control officer, equipped with a portable 25 W aviation radio. At 1300 hrs two more air traffic control officers boarded the vessel.
To direct the search properly, MRCC Turku telefaxed the OSC at around 0800 hrs information on the currents in the area, drift calculations and the weather forecast. On the basis of this information, the search formation was directed at 1000 hrs to proceed on a course of 100°. It turned around at 1151 hrs when the calculated limit of drift had been reached. In addition, the drift was followed on patrol flights by three maritime surveillance aircraft. The operational areas for the helicopters were determined on the basis of the results of the patrol flights. Empty liferafts were observed to drift in the strong winds considerably beyond the calculated line.
The OSC continued to manage the search until 1832 hrs, at which time all the vessels were informed in Finnish, Swedish and English that the search would be de-escalated. All were thanked for their assistance.
The SILJA EUROPA rescued one survivor. One helicopter brought five survivors and another a wounded Swedish rescue man on the vessel, which arrived in Stockholm on 29 September at 0313 hrs.


The passenger ferry Silja Symphony was on her way from Stockholm to Helsinki. At 0123 hrs she had the Suomen Leijona caisson lighthouse 6.9 nautical miles away on a bearing of 207°. The distance to the ESTONIA was about 25 nautical miles. The Silja Symphony was proceeding on a course of 97° at 21 knots.
After receiving the distress call the lookout watch on the bridge started a tape recorder, at about 0123 hrs.
At 0150 hrs the Silja Symphony changed course to 122° towards the scene of the accident, continuing to maintain full speed. The tailwind and quartering seas, coming from starboard, did not slow the speed.
The vessel reached the scene of the accident at about 0240 hrs and positioned herself upwind from the MARIELLA at a distance of about one nautical mile. She received from the OSC instructions regarding the search and the area of the search.
Liferafts hanging from the wire of a crane were lowered into the sea off the starboard side of the vessel in case one of the ESTONIA's rafts could be brought nearby; the survivors could transfer to the SILJA SYMPHONY's rafts, which could then be winched up.
At 0312 hrs the forward port slide was manned.
Four survivors, hoisted up from liferafts by a helicopter, were brought to the vessel at 0410 hrs and taken for treatment.
At 0620 hrs five survivors and at 0757 hrs eleven survivors and one body were brought on board by the same helicopter.
The Silja Symphony continued, proceeding cautiously and searching for liferafts carrying survivors. At 1320 hrs she received permission to continue to Helsinki, where she arrived at 1848 hrs with 20 survivors and one body.


The passenger ferry Isabella was sailing from Stockholm to Helsinki. At 2400 hrs she passed the Svenska Björn caisson lighthouse at 4.4 nautical miles on a bearing of 187°.
Unlike the above-mentioned vessels the ISABELLA did not pick up the distress call from the ESTONIA. At about 0150 hrs the crew on watch saw the Silja Europa change course to cross her line of course. At the same time the Silja Symphony, which was proceeding to the north of the ISABELLA, announced on VHF that she was changing her course towards the ESTONIA and would therefore have to pass ahead of the ISABELLA. On being informed that the ESTONIA was in distress, the officer of the watch of the ISABELLA turned his vessel towards the reported scene of the accident, 17 nautical miles away.
According to the ISABELLA's master, the vessel arrived at the scene of the accident at about 0252 hrs. At this time the propellers were stopped and the vessel was allowed to drift together with the MARIELLA nearby. The ISABELLA was instructed to begin the search south of the MARIELLA. While drifting the starboard side was to the wind.
At 0314 hrs the vessel winched one of her own liferafts down to the sea. The bunker door was opened, but had to be closed due to heavy seas. Ten minutes later a second raft was lowered with two voluntary rescue men from the ship. On reaching the sea they rescued a swimmer with a lifejacket. He was transferred to their raft, which was then winched up at 0445 hrs.
The next ESTONIA raft came near the ISABELLA at 0530 hrs. The master steered the vessel so that three voluntary rescue men who had been lowered in one of the Isabella's rafts were able to get hold of it. About 20 people on board the raft were transferred to the Isabella's raft. When the crew of the Isabella tried to winch up this raft, it was too heavy because of the number of people in it and water poured into it. The raft tore in the process and filled with water, upon which at least two of the survivors and the three rescue men fell into the sea. A helicopter called to the scene lifted up one survivor who was hanging on to a lifebuoy, and the three rescue men. All four were brought to Hanko. At least one of the persons who had fallen into the sea disappeared. The sixteen survivors still on the damaged raft were pulled one by one up the slide and into the vessel.
A helicopter winched one survivor in deep hypothermia from the Isabella at 0905 hrs and flew him to a hospital in Turku.
The vessel continued her search in the vicinity of the accident site until 1320 hrs, when the OSC gave her permission to continue her voyage to Helsinki, where she arrived at 1900 hrs.
The ISABELLA rescued 17 persons of whom 16 were taken to Helsinki.


The gas turbine passenger ferry FINNJET departed from Helsinki for Travemünde in Germany at 1900 hrs. Her average speed was about 16 knots, and she was using her diesel engines. On receiving the Mayday call at 0124 hrs, the FINNJET was about 23 nautical miles east of the ESTONIA.
The FINNJET turned towards the scene of the accident at 0133 hrs on a heading of 276°. At first she proceeded with her diesel engines running at a speed of 15 knots, but at 0215 hrs the gas turbines were started in order to improve manoeuvrability.
According to the master's report the vessel arrived at the scene of the accident at 0320 hrs.
To keep the rolling to a tolerable level, the Finnjet proceeded at 5 - 7 knots during the search. When changing course, the vessel rolled so heavily that the crew feared that the cargo would start to shift. Several passenger cars shifted and were damaged, and one almost fell from the vessel's hoistable car deck.
During the search the vessel reported to the OSC three rafts containing survivors.
At the beginning of the rescue operation the officers on the bridge worked actively to get helicopters alarmed quickly and involved in the rescue. Because of the continuously worsening weather and to prevent further damage, the vessel requested permission from the OSC to continue her voyage to Travemünde. The OSC gave this permission at 0755 hrs, and it was confirmed by MRCC Turku ten minutes later.
No survivors were rescued from the sea or brought to the vessel from helicopters.


The cargo ferry FINNMERCHANT sailing from the Gulf of Finland to Lübeck in Germany received parts of the distress traffic. The crew called up the Silja Europa at about 0145 hrs and received instructions to proceed to the scene of the accident. The vessel's speed to the scene was about 15 knots and she arrived at 0325 hrs.
On approaching, her master reported to the OSC that, because of the rough seas, the vessel would not be able to lift survivors from the water.
All liferafts observed were reported to the OSC. The first liferafts were observed already on her arrival. When the OSC asked whether any persons could be seen in the liferafts, the master tried to steer the FINNMERCHANT as close as possible to the rafts so that they could be well lit with searchlights. However, there was not enough time to examine all the liferafts in this way, since manoeuvring was difficult. When the coast guard patrol vessel TURSAS reached the scene, the two vessels worked together, the Finnmerchant lighting up the rafts and the more manoeuvrable Tursas checking for survivors. The vessel continued the search throughout the entire day, and was released at 1832 hrs, at which time she continued her voyage to Lübeck.
No survivors were rescued from the sea or brought to the vessel from helicopters.


The passenger/ro-ro cargo vessel Finnhansa, which had departed at 2000 hrs from Helsinki bound for Lübeck was south of Hanko at about 0130 hrs. Some 30 minutes later she slowed from 18 knots to 15 due to the heavy head wind and waves.
The distress radio traffic was not heard until at about 0245 hrs, when she was closing to 25 nautical miles of the scene of the accident. When her master had been called to the bridge, the course was altered towards the scene and speed increased. Because of the head wind and the high waves however, speed soon had to be reduced again to 10 - 12 knots. At about 0430 hrs the vessel arrived at the scene of the accident.
On approaching the scene, she was requested by the OSC to search for people in the water and rafts, locate them precisely and report these to OSC so that they could be picked up by helicopters. Several rafts were seen; most were empty, but a few were observed to hold survivors. There were also some capsized liferafts as well as water-filled or capsized lifeboats. No survivors were rescued from the sea or brought to the vessel from helicopters.
At 1832 hrs she received permission to continue her voyage to Lübeck.


The coast guard patrol vessel TURSAS, alerted at 0130 hrs, was ordered to proceed to the scene of the accident, where she arrived at 0500 hrs. At 0615 hrs a survivor was found on the second raft examined and brought aboard the vessel. The survivor had an injured hip and slight hypothermia. When the body temperature of the rescued person began to increase, he started to complain of pain in the hip. A helicopter was summoned to the vessel, but was unable to winch the patient aboard. At 0800 hrs a body was found in a water-filled raft, but could not be recovered to the vessel despite several attempts. (On co-operation with the Finnmerchant, see above.)
Towards the end of the search the TURSAS together with the minelayer UUSIMAA and the coast guard patrol vessels KIISLA and VALPAS were left in the area. The master of the TURSAS was appointed CSS at 1850 hrs. By this time the vessel had inspected 25 liferafts.
A new attempt to winch up the injured person to a helicopter failed and at 1950 hrs the TURSAS got permission to take the rescued man to Hanko for medical care.
The vessel returned to sea and the master acted as CSS in the area also on 29 and 30 September, participating in the search for victims. Several bodies as well as debris were found. After this the TURSAS changed crew and continued its mission until 3 October. The TURSAS rescued one person.


The cargo ship Mini Star, proceeding from Kiel in Germany to Kotka in Finland, was 35 nautical miles SSW of the ESTONIA and arrived at the scene of the accident at about 0430 hrs. She was assigned the task of searching the area at her master's own discretion. The vessel was also instructed to go near liferafts that had been observed in order to check whether there were any people on board. At 0510 hrs motion was observed on board a liferaft. When it had been secured to the vessel with a line, two persons were seen on board. It proved impossible to bring them on board the vessel because of the heavy rolling - up to 45 degrees. Then a pilot ladder hanging down from the side was brought near the raft so that they could try to climb up. A man on board the raft failed several times to climb up. He did not understand the instructions shouted to him to wait calmly for a helicopter. When he made a new attempt, a wave washed him into the sea, where he disappeared. A helicopter arrived at 0520 hrs and brought up the second survivor from the raft.
The vessel continued its search until 1830 hrs, when she was given permission to continue her voyage to Kotka.

Final remarks

Two hours after the ESTONIA sank, 6 vessels had reached the scene of the accident. By 1600 hrs, 29 vessels had arrived to carry out a surface search. The times of arrival are given in Table 7.6.

Table 7.6 Times of arrival.
0212 hrs Mariella, passenger/cargo ro-ro ferry,
0230 hrs SILJA EUROPA, passenger/cargo ro-ro ferry,
0240 hrs Silja Symphony, passenger/cargo ro-ro ferry,
0252 hrs Isabella, passenger/cargo ro-ro ferry,
0320 hrs Finnjet, passenger/cargo ro-ro ferry,
0325 hrs Finnmerchant, ro-ro cargo,
0430 hrs Finnhansa, passenger/ro-ro cargo,
0430 hrs Mini Star, ro-ro cargo,
0500 hrs Tursas, patrol vessel,
0510 hrs Ingrid Gorthon, pallets carrier,
0700 hrs Uusimaa, minelayer,
0811 hrs Arkadia, bulk carrier,
0919 hrs Bremer Uranus, general cargo,
0945 hrs Rakvere, general cargo,
1015 hrs MAERSK EURO TERTIO, container ship,
1018 hrsVALPAS, patrol vessel,
1045 hrs CRYSTAL PEARL, tanker,
1053 hrs MICHEL, general cargo,
1158 hrs WESTÖN, ro-ro cargo,
1220 hrs KIISLA, patrol vessel,
1258 hrs BERGÖN, general cargo,
1305 hrs FINNFIGHTER, general cargo,
1349 hrs PETSAMO, general cargo,
1415 hrs UISKO, patrol vessel,
1427 hrs NAVIGIA, general cargo,
1431 hrs BALANGA QUEEN, passenger/cargo ro-ro ferry,
1455 hrs CORTIA, ro-ro cargo,
1458 hrs RANKKI, tanker,
1502 hrs TIIRA, tanker.


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