MORE than 800 people were believed dead yesterday after an Estonian ferry capsized in stormy weather and sank, making the accident the worst Baltic peacetime disaster at sea.
At least 126 people were rescued from choppy waters, most of them found clinging to lifeboats, after the ferry Estonia sank in the early morning hours with an estimated 867 to 964 passengers and crew on board. Due to the frigid temperature of the water, rescue teams doubted more survivors would be found.
The German-made car and passenger ferry sank in violent weather off southwest Finland, about 26 miles from the Finnish island of Uto. The vessel was on its way from the Estonian capital, Tallinn, to Stockholm.
Reports said that more than half of the passengers were Swedish, around 340 Estonian, and the rest from Finland, Norway, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, and Canada. Most of the crew came from Estonia. Estonian President Lennart Meri yesterday declared a national day of mourning in the nation of 1.6 million people. Flags flew at half-mast in Norway and Finland.
The 15,556-ton Estonia was jointly owned by the Swedish shipping company Nordstrom and Thulin AB and Estonia's Estline. It was built in 1980, and had been sailing Baltic routes since it was commissioned.
It is not yet known exactly why the ferry sunk. The crew only had time to send a brief Mayday distress signal saying the vessel had developed electrical problems before it lost contact.
One shipping official told Reuters that the engine suddenly lost power. He said the ferry had been traveling the same route, often in worse weather, for 14 years, and that inclement conditions alone could not force the ferry to sink.
The Swedish news agency TT reported that Swedish inspectors questioned the seaworthiness of the vessel hours before it sank. Two inspectors found that seals on the front-loading doors were in bad shape, which could have allowed the ship to take on water.
Survivors said the ferry, which sank at about 1:24 a.m. local time, when most passengers were asleep below deck, abruptly listed about 30 degrees to one side and then capsized. They said it took the vessel less than five minutes to sink.
Some Swedish media reports speculated that the churning sea caused cars and other heavy vehicles below deck to suddenly shift to one side, causing the ferry to lose balance.
But Johannes Johanson, director of Estline, told Estonian radio that the ferry should have remained afloat despite any odds. ``It is completely mysterious.... In any event, in an accident, the ship should not have sunk,'' he said.
An Estonian governmental commission is already investigating the incident.
Several European countries teamed up to aid rescue operations, dispatching 18 helicopters, a fixed-wing aircraft, and more than 10 ships to the area. Although they searched the turbulent sea for survivors, they were hindered by the extreme nighttime blackness.
Meanwhile, Finnish and Swedish media reported that relatives of the victims had crowded sea terminals in Helsinki and Stockholm, awaiting news of loved ones. But rescuers said the fierce cold of the sea could prevent potential survivors from staying alive until rescuers reached them.