Sunday, 28 September 2014

Twenty years back

Imagine it's 1994. You're about to depart from Tallinn on board a fancy, unsinkable ship with a great symbolic value. Perhaps you're very excited, perhaps a bit sad to be leaving. Are you going to work, to visit friends, on a vacation, maybe to attend an event? Maybe you just closely missed the departure due to some frustrating inconvenience. Or you just boarded and found everything you'd expect to find - restaurants, stores, a night club. Are you stunned by the beauty of the ship or is it something so usual you don't even notice it?

The ship departs, hours pass. What are you doing now? Are you enjoying the show in the nightclub? Or perhaps in your warm cabin bed resting after a long hard day, maybe a few drinks at the bar? Maybe you're doing your job just like the rest of the crew? The weather is stormy and the ship rolls heavily, the sun decks are closed and even if they weren't, they're definitely not the place you want to be right now. Even without the help of a drink or two it's hard to walk straight. Perhaps the rolling worries  you, or are you so used to life on the sea that no little storm scares you?

Suddenly the ship lists heavily. You fall out of your bed, you find it very difficult to not fall over wherever you're standing. The chair you're sitting on slides away, taking you along. Maybe you do fall over, maybe you manage to grab something and hold on. People around you, as well as yourself, realize that something is wrong. People are screaming and trying to run, some are apathetic, some are doing everything to prevent others from escaping. Many are injured, you might be as well. Water is pouring from toilets, wetting the floors and feeding the panic. The list keeps getting worse, you try hard to make your way upstairs, which gets more and more difficult by the minute. Maybe you're stuck in your cabin with nothing to use to climb up and out of the door, and you realize that your only option is to go down with the ship. 

Perhaps you're one of the lucky ones to make it on the sun deck. It's cold and windy, the waves are very high and you see that you have to climb over the railing and stand on the side of the ship - the ship has turned to her side. You notice people launching liferafts. Maybe you'll be lucky enough to join them, maybe not. Do you jump in the freezing water right away or try to stay with the ship for as long as you can? The ship blasts her final horn; it's a long, long blast. Before it ends, her funnel sinks in the sea. You see lights from liferafts and other ships and a guy flashing his camera. You're standing on the bottom of the glorious cruiseferry who will pull you down with her, probably for good, if you don't leave her right away. 

Now you're floating in the freezing water, swimming, looking for a liferaft or something to hold on to. Maybe you're already in a liferaft. The waves are making it difficult to see what's going on around you, throwing you around so that it's hard to get anywhere. There's a lot of water in your liferaft from the heavy waves, mixed with some vomit from the severely seasick people in your liferaft, probably including yourself. The beautiful cruiseferry that brought you here is nowhere to be found. Maybe you witnessed her final minutes from your raft, maybe you were too busy saving your own life. 

The first ships have arrived on the scene. You see one guy climbing up a ladder on the side of an enormous white Silja Line cruiseferry. At this point you're probably too sick, tired, weak, frozen, injured to do anything. Maybe you're lucky to be one of the first to be picked up by a helicopter, maybe you've had to wait for so long and you see the sky slowly getting lighter as a new day dawns. Are you even alive? 

Even when you're finally being pulled up towards a helicopter, you're still not safe. What if the rescue equipment of the helicopter lets you down and you fall straight back into the freezing water? Maybe you're once again lucky to be safely on the helicopter. Maybe it takes you to one of the nearby cruiseferries, maybe straight to the shore. You're being taken care of and constantly bombarded with questions while finally starting to grasp what has just happened. Eventually you learn that you were one of a few to survive.

Maybe you missed the fateful departure or never even intended to be there. You woke up in the morning from your comfortable bed to hear the news. Is it some kind of a joke? Surely it can't be real?

Unfortunately, it was all real exactly 20 years ago, when the glorious cruiseferry Estonia, a symbol of the regained independence of the namesake country, was tragically lost at sea along with the majority of her passengers, becoming a synonym of the worst peacetime disaster to occur in the Baltic Sea.

1980 - 1994

The disaster led to many changes in ship safety and the order of handling such situations. Most Estonians lost someone or knew someone who lost someone that night.

It occurred nearly two years before I came to this world and I'm not the result of any incredible survivals; no one I'm related to was lost either. Still, even years later the event has affected me deeply. I've read countless stories, watched hours and hours of related videos and movies, which enabled me to write this post in the first place; whenever I travel, I feel completely secure boarding my ship, I trust it fully. I'm sure the people boarding the Estonia before her final departure were mostly feeling the same. Of all the horrible shipwrecks, this one happened to a ship of my favourite kind, a Baltic Sea cruiseferry, a descendant of Finnjet. I don't even want to know what I would've felt, had I lived that night.

May the souls of the 852 people who were lost with the ship rest in peace. 

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