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Finnish nurse remembers Estonia ferry tragedy, 25 years on

The MS Estonia ferry sank in international waters close to Finland on 28 September 1994, claiming more than 800 lives.

Estonian onnettomuuspäivä on painunut lähtemättömästi hankolaisen Susann Blomqvist-Söderlingin mieleen.
Hanko resident Susann Blomqvist-Söderling cared for some of the survivors. Image: Paula Tiainen / Yle

On this date 25 years ago, the passenger ferry MS Estonia went down in international waters off the island of Utö in the Turku archipelago, killing 852 passengers and crew. Ten Finns were lost in the shipwreck; most of the victims of the 1994 tragedy were Swedes and Estonians.

The boat was on route from Tallinn to Stockholm when heavy waves caused the locks on the bow door to fail, flooding the car deck. Most of the people on board died when the boat sank below the water.

A small health centre in the southern municipality of Hanko, Finland cared for some of the passengers that beat the odds and survived the tragedy. Susann Blomqvist-Söderling remembers that she had just become a licensed nurse and started work at the Hanko clinic when she was woken by a phone call at 7am, asking her to report to work.

"It was a stormy morning and I was told that a ship had gone down in the Baltic Sea. Many people had drowned, but some of the people that had survived would be arriving at the health centre for treatment," she said.

She said the first of the 34 patients transported by Finnish Coast Guard helicopters to Hanko arrived within minutes, and so the staff of the health centre had very little time to prepare. Those that were severely injured were transported to hospitals in Ekenäs and Helsinki, leaving fewer than 20 in Hanko.

Blomqvist-Söderling says that the patients she cared for had hypothermia and were in shock.

"During the day they began to communicate more, and with time they were talking quite a lot, mostly about the accident of course. They even became angry when they realized the scale of what had happened. When it dawned on them how few of them had survived, it was devastating," she recalls.

News of the disaster spread slowly

There was no such thing as the internet or smartphones back in 1994, so news of the tragedy travelled relatively slowly.

"The TV was showing footage, but I understood that people following the radio broadcasts had a hard time comprehending the magnitude of the disaster," Blomqvist-Söderling says.

Swedish-born Leif Bogren later wrote a book Därför överlevde jag Estonia about his experience. Blomqvist-Söderling says she remembers him well from his time in Hanko, as they went clothes shopping together once he had recovered.

"Some of the people that were rescued had no clothes on their back. This was back during the recession, so we had strict instructions to only buy the survivors the bare essentials," she says.

The sinking of the MS Estonia led to a string of improvements in maritime safety in the Baltic and experts say that a similar disaster would nowadays be highly unlikely.

Memorial services for the victims of the disaster were held on Saturday in Sweden and Estonia.

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