- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 12, 2003

STOCKHOLMGregg Bemis infuriated Swedish authorities two years ago by organizing a dive to investigate the sinking of the luxury ferry Estonia.

Because dives to the wreck are banned by a “grave-site treaty,” Mr. Bemis, a New Mexico businessman, faces arrest if he sets foot in Sweden. Yet Mr. Bemis thinks he has found evidence of foul play and would like to set up another dive to the site 240 feet deep in the Baltic Sea.

He joins a chorus of people who do not believe the official explanation for the Estonia’s sinking, in which 852 persons perished on a stormy night more than eight years ago, and he is calling for an independent investigation.

“I’ve proposed a forensic examination of the wreck, a scientific expedition, with Swedish observers on board,” he said. “Why won’t they allow me to do that?”

On Sept. 28, 1994, the Estonia passenger ferry sank halfway between Tallinn and Stockholm on an overnight cruise. A luxury boat eight stories high and as long as a city block, the Estonia had a nightclub, pool, casino, restaurants and shops. The ship flipped on its side in the middle of the night and sank in about 35 minutes.

Passengers who could get out of their cabins had to fight their way up stairs that were turning sideways. Doors for escape became unreachable 10 feet overhead. The 1,000 passengers had only 10 minutes to get off the ship before climbing became impossible and the lights went out.

“We found mayhem on the ship,” said Johan Fransson, head of Sweden’s Maritime Administration, who supervised a government dive to the wreck in 1994. “A lot of bodies were found in the stairwells. This was chaos.”

In 1997, a trigovernment commission with members from Sweden, Estonia and Finland, the Joint Accident Investigation Committee (JAIC), released a final report on the sinking, which was intended to close the books on Europe’s worst peacetime ferry disaster.

Many people believe the final report is dead wrong.

“I don’t know why the Estonia sank, but I’m quite sure it didn’t happen like the report said,” said Tom Heyman, a member of Sweden’s Moderate Party who recently retired from parliament. “That is a forgery from the start to the beginning. Everybody was trying to protect their own interests as best as they could.”

Independent investigators have raised legitimate questions that challenge the JAIC conclusions. Reasoned debates have degenerated into personal attacks on both sides, underscoring the deep emotions still aroused by the Estonia disaster.

The core disagreement involves how the ferry sank. The JAIC said that waves tore off the ship’s bow visor, a 55-ton steel door on the nose of the ship. The bow visor flips up like the visor on a knight’s head armor, a steel ramp comes down and vehicles drive aboard.

In rough seas, the JAIC said, the visor was torn off and caught on the ramp, yanking it open. Seawater rushed onto the car deck, and the huge passenger ferry flipped on its side and sank to the bottom of the Baltic Sea in about 35 minutes.

The JAIC cited faulty design of the bow-visor locks as the main contributing cause of the disaster and blamed the Joseph L. Meyer GmbH & Co. shipyard in Papenburg, Germany, which built the Estonia in 1980.

Anders Bjorkman, a naval architect based in Paris and part-owner of similar ferries in the Middle East, began doing stability calculations because he was concerned his ferries could suffer the Estonia’s fate.

“We soon found out nothing was correct from the [stability calculations] in the final report,” he said.

Mr. Bjorkman, a staunch critic of the JAIC, says that if water flowed onto the car deck, which is above the water line, the ship would have flipped upside down but that it ended up floating on trapped air.

He says the Estonia left the dock in Tallinn with a slight tilt to starboard, the right side, probably increased by the wind. If water enters the car deck from the bow area, it runs to the lowest point: starboard. As more water flows in, it adds more weight to starboard, until the ship flops on its side, and eventually turns upside down and floats.

“Below the car deck is the watertight hull, 14 compartments on which the ship floats in a normal situation,” Mr. Bjorkman said. “This represents 18,000 cubic meters of trapped air that the ship would float on.”

Werner Hummel, head of Marine Claims Partner GmbH of Germany, who was hired by the shipyard to investigate the disaster, agrees. Only over time would seawater penetrate the ship and push out air.

“This is simple physics,” Mr. Hummel says, adding that an intact ship would have floated for at least several hours, if not a day.

Tuomo Karppinen, former JAIC member and now head of Finland’s Accident Investigation Board, refutes alternative sinking scenarios with published stability tests. He stands behind the JAIC’s explanation.

But Bengt Schager, a Swedish marine psychologist, said the stability experts in the commission grew less certain about their conclusion over time.

“They were in disagreement with [stability] in closed rooms,” Mr. Schager said. “We did not understand how a ship could sink in about 35 minutes. That was mysterious for everyone, and it’s still unexplained.”

Mr. Schager, who resigned from the JAIC in frustration, says the committee prevented him from interviewing any survivors, except their three choices. Moreover, members couldn’t agree on a definition of seaworthiness, and he says his e-mail was tampered with during the investigation.

When Mr. Schager cited other factors he believed contributed to the sinking, the JAIC refused to allow the text into the final report. That’s when he left.

“I resigned because they falsified information,” he said. “If we had concluded the ship wasn’t seaworthy, then [the sinking] would have to be a criminal offense.”

Opposition to the JAIC report was largely unsubstantiated until Mr. Bemis led the August 2000 dive that he says was cut short.

Mr. Bemis, 71, a former business executive and venture capitalist, owns another underwater wreck: the passenger ship the Lusitania, whose sinking by a German submarine drew the United States into World War I. He became part-owner of the ship through a business partner who owned shares of the Lusitania when the two entered into an underwater salvage business.

Over several years, Mr. Bemis acquired all the shares to the Lusitania. He owns the shipwreck but not the cargo and personal effects.

He says that diving examinations of the Lusitania show that a second explosion, which sank the ship, was probably caused by explosives, which should not have been on a passenger ship.

“It served a purpose; it helped get the U.S. into World War I, something Churchill wanted. Nevertheless I think it should be exposed as such,” Mr. Bemis says.

Swedish friends told him about the Estonia ferry, and he said he found similar indications of a coverup. They asked him to examine it and he organized the dive.

The grave-site treaty, which Sweden says protects the sanctity of the dead, forced Mr. Bemis to sail from neutral Germany, limiting the dive’s effectiveness. Moreover, Sweden dispatched military speedboats to circle the dive ship while coast guard officers boarded and demanded a crew list.

“My position is, you can’t go out in international waters and draw a square and say nobody can go there; that’s why they are called international waters,” Mr. Bemis said.

Despite adverse conditions, divers managed to salvage metal samples from the ferry’s bow area. They were brought to a metallurgical lab in the United States and to two labs in Germany.

“Three separate labs analyzing the metal samples from the ship have confirmed an explosion took place,” says Mr. Hummel, the German investigator. “That is a fact.”

However, smaller parts from the main sample were cut off and analyzed at a German state lab, which detected no evidence of an explosion. Mr. Hummel says these smaller, cut-out parts were too far away from the damage confirmed on the larger sample piece to yield similar results.

Sweden, however, says the findings of the German government lab confirm that no explosion took place and that it considers the matter closed, said Catrin Tidstrom, spokeswoman for the Transport Ministry.

As the public tries to make sense of conflicting information, alternative theories for the sinking circulate. German newspapers reported that the Estonia ferry had received bomb threats and have speculated that the ship was sabotaged.

Swedish journalist Knut Carlqvist speculates about a collision in his book “Tysta Leken” (“Silent Game”). He points out that at least seven survivors in different parts of the ship reported hearing a scraping noise along the ship’s hull shortly after loud bangs and the ship’s big tilt to the right. Scrape marks on the hull remain unexplained.

A strong belief among the critics is that the ferry sank fast because of a hole below the waterline on the front starboard side, which the authorities deny.

Video from the Bemis dive shows the area covered with a mound of sand. The sand appears to sink into an opening, which Mr. Bemis believes is a hole.

Former JAIC members say the sandy area reveals a shadow.

“There is no hole,” said Mr. Karppinen, who has seen the footage. “Now I’m sure Mr. Bemis knows there is no hole, and he has no more interest in the wreck.”

But neither side has proof.

Other actions by Sweden have deepened suspicions of a coverup. The government wanted to seal the wreck in concrete, like the Chernobyl reactor, but balked after public outcry.

Sweden also hired Rockwater, now a division of Halliburton Co., to examine the Estonia. The dive produced 13 videotapes showing the wreck from every angle, except for the starboard hull area.

Lars Angstrom, a parliamentarian from Sweden’s Green Party, believes the Rockwater videos may have been edited. “The footage is always missing when the camera goes to a specific area of ship.” he says. “Where are the original videos? There have been no good answers to these questions.”

For 18 months Mr. Angstrom tried to get parliament to vote on a motion to re-examine the disaster. In May, the motion was included in a state budgetary debate, which turned it into a peripheral issue.

Parliament didn’t argue, Mr. Angstrom said, adding, “They just said there will be no new investigation. Usually you refer to earlier decisions or some arguments. I found it disturbing.”

Mr. Angstrom thinks national security could be an issue.

Mr. Heyman, from the Moderate Party, who was trained as a master mariner and served on ships before he entered politics, also supported an Estonia re-examination. He recalls discussing a draft motion in parliament.

“The chairman in the Social Democrat committee was more or less frightened,” Mr. Heyman said. “She put the issue on the shelf. I’ve been here 14 years and have never experienced anything like it.”

Perhaps the last chance of uncovering the truth through legal channels rests with a court case in Paris. A few families of the victims didn’t accept an insurance settlement and have been in a legal battle with the French ship-certification organization Bureau Veritas and the German shipyard.

Erik Schmill, a partner in the Schmill & Lombrez firm representing the families, says the case is stalled because several Swedish insurance companies that were obligated to pay legal fees in May haven’t done so.

Mr. Schmill believes he has a solid case. Three weeks before the Estonia sank, the Bureau Veritas was appointed to inspect and certify the vessel.

“We know nobody was actually on board to survey the vessel,” Mr. Schmill said. “There are clear documents that prove the Bureau Veritas failed in their duty.”

If the legal fees are paid and the case goes to the French court, Mr. Schmill believes the investigation into the Estonia disaster is likely to be reopened. He says an independent dive, supported by both the plaintiffs and defendants would probably occur regardless of the grave-site treaty.

“It would be very difficult for states to prevent a dive if ordered by a court in France,” Mr. Schmill said. “Then we would get the real answers as to why the vessel sank.”

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