As It Happens·Q&A

Filmmaker who discovered large hole in sunken ferry says survivors want answers

A new documentary series is challenging how a ferry sank in the Baltic Sea nearly two decades ago, killing 852 people.

852 people died aboard the MS Estonia in one of Europe’s worst peacetime shipping disasters

Documentary filmmaker Henrik Evertsson was arrested and charged for filming the wreckage of the MS Estonia, which is designated a sea grave. (Discovery/Monster)

A new documentary series is challenging the narrative about how a ferry sank in the Baltic Sea nearly two decades ago, killing 852 people.

The MS Estonia went down in just one hour on Sept. 28, 1994. Now the filmmakers behind a new mini series say they've found a previously unreported four-metre hole in the hull of the wreck.

A 1997 investigation determined the cause of the disaster was the bow door being ripped open by waves. But survivors have long disputed that and called for another investigation. 

Authorities in Estonia, Sweden and Finland say they will look at the new evidence. 

Henrik Evertsson, director of the five-part mini series Estonia: The Find That Changes Everything, spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about what he found, and why he was arrested during his investigation. Here is part of their conversation. 

The investigators of the disaster concluded back in 1997 that the ferry sank because a door was torn open at sea. How could they have missed this hole? 

That's a very good question, because in our research, we interviewed a lot of survivors. The survivors were concluded as victims of this disaster and couldn't witness.

But when we interviewed them, they are telling a totally different story than the final report.

For example, they are hearing a big bang and they also feel a big bang. So that was something that drew the suspicions that [there] might have been significant other reasons why the ship went down. 

The bow door of the MS Estonia is lifted from the bottom of the sea off Uto island overnight in November 1994, nearly two months after the ferry sank in the Baltic Sea. (Jaakko Avikainen/AFP via Getty Images)

I'm quite surprised to hear they were not allowed to give testimony to the inquiry.

Yes, that's correct. Only crew members were interviewed. 

And you discovered this hole how? 

We sent down an underwater drone ... to the Estonia. She is resting in quite shallow waters. 

And we were following the ... starboard side fender. And we were going from the bow to the stern, and one-third to the stern, we thought the ship was ending, actually. We were quite surprised. But then we saw this huge damage in the hull of Estonia. 

Four metres is quite significant. I'm just wondering what could have created that hole? What are you speculating? 

Actually, as a journalist, I would prefer not to speculate. We tried to investigate and to report on this. But we have shown it to a lot of experts and they are saying that this is an impact from outside. So to create this kind of damage, you need a very huge object. 

Evertsson said he felt it was important to investigate the ship, despite the risk of arrest. (Discovery/Monster)

There's no reference to this hole in the final report? There's no photographs, no imaging at all? 

No, exactly. That was also one thing that drew our suspicions, because there are a lot of hours, I don't know how many hours I've watched those ... tapes from back in 1994, but they are leaving out quite a large part of the ship, and that's the starboard side. 

And also the Estonia [was heavily tilted] to the starboard side, so we thought that if there is a hole in the hull, it should be on the starboard side. 

The authorities never raised this ship and they left it as a sea grave, also prohibiting any exploration of the wreckage. You are facing charges now for doing so. Why did you take that risk? 

To do critical journalism in this handling of the Estonia disaster was more important than those criminal charges. 

But I would also like to mention that we did a lot of both the legal and ethical judgments before we even made the dive. 

This grave site treaty was never signed by Germany, for example, and we had a German flagship. And also, the wreck is resting on international waters. 

This disaster killed 852 people — 137 survived. What kind of reaction have you had from the survivors and from the family members of those killed? 

People are calling me and they're crying and they are thankful because now maybe the truth can be revealed.

You don't want to speculate, and I do understand that, given your position. But people are reacting to this discovery. I'm just wondering what experts are saying, what people are looking at this and saying why this happened, how this was overlooked and whether it was deliberate. 

Yes, and I hope that it will be some kind of a discussion without the speculation.

Regarding those speculations and conspiracy theories, the only medicine to cure that is facts on the table. And that's what we tried to do. 

Written by Sarah Jackson. Produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?