A Swedish court has acquitted two documentary film-makers of desecration after underwater footage they shot of the wreck of the Estonia ferry raised new questions about the cause of Europe’s worst peacetime maritime disaster.
Henrik Evertsson and Linus Andersson sent a remote-operated submersible down to the vessel, which sank in the Baltic Sea in September 1994 with the loss of 852 lives and was designated a graveyard by Finland, Sweden and Estonia a year later.
The footage revealed a huge hole in the ship’s side, casting doubt on the findings of an official investigation into the sinking, but Evertsson and Andersson were charged by Sweden with violating the sanctity of the wreck.
Gothenburg district court found on Monday that the two Swedes, who could have faced heavy fines or up to two years in prison, had “committed acts that are punishable under the so-called Estonia Act” but could not be punished because at the time they were on a German-flagged ship in international waters.
The court said Germany was “not bound by the agreement” reached between three countries – Sweden, Estonia and Finland – that had declared the wreck inviolable, and the vessel the team used to send down their robot in September 2019 was “seen as German territory”.
An international report in 1997 concluded that the Estonia, which was on a routine overnight crossing from Tallinn to Stockholm carrying 803 passengers and 186 crew, sank after its bow doors were wrenched open in a heavy storm, flooding the car deck.
Any suggestion that the vessel had been holed was dismissed, but survivors have insisted they heard and felt a loud metallic bang about 50 minutes before the ship sank in about 80 metres of water. Only 138 people were rescued, and only 93 bodies recovered.
Groups representing the victims’ families have long called for a fresh investigation, saying the bang – and the extraordinary speed with which the ship sank – were consistent with a collision causing underwater damage to the Estonia’s hull. Others blamed an explosion, which was also ruled out by an inquiry in 2005.
The team’s discovery+ documentary, released last year, showed a hole 4 metres high and 1.2 metres long on the ship’s starboard side, which experts said was probably caused by a collision with an object weighing between 1,000 and 5,000 tonnes, travelling at between two and four knots.
The film-makers’ findings prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity, with the foreign ministers of Estonia, Finland and Sweden issuing a joint statement agreeing that the “new information presented in the documentary will be verified”.
The Estonian prime minister said last year that the film “raises questions that have to be answered”, and in December Sweden announced plans to amend the law to allow a re-examination of the wreck.