It was the evening of September 27, 1994, when a powerful low-pressure system moving east from Norway brought sheets of icy rain, strong winds, and even 6-meters waves to the Baltic Sea.
The Estonia had left her home port of Tallinn 15 minutes behind the scheduled 7 p.m. departure, and she was slicing through the frigid waters at maximum speed.
Her engines pushing the 155-meters ship hard as the crew tried to make up time for the scheduled morning arrival in Stockholm.
As the ship crossed heavy seas, some of the passengers who had not retired to their cabins with seasickness were enjoying all she had to offer.
Her nine decks included three restaurants, three bars, a casino, a movie theater, a swimming pool and sauna, a duty-free shop, and a video arcade.
And, moreover, this floating pleasure palace featured daily round trips between Estonia and Sweden.
However, on that infamous day, just before 1 a.m., a loud metallic sound reverberated throughout the ship, and panic ensued as she listed heavily to her starboard side.
Less than 40 minutes later she capsized and sank, taking 852 souls with her.
The sinking of the Estonia stands as the second-worst European peacetime disaster at sea after the world famous Titanic, and only this would be enough.
However, there is something else compounding her tragic legacy.
Historically, the ship began service 14 years earlier as a Finnish ship with a different name, one that resonates as the most notorious that has ever sailed the Baltic sea.
In fact, two brutal onboard murders occurred a year apart, one of which remains basically unsolved, and this is the story of the infamous Viking Sally.
Even further back, given its extreme location in Northern Europe, Finland boasts a rich maritime history that dates to the Iron Age, when settlers in the West Coast city of Turku began sending goods along the Baltic trade routes.
Ever since, these shipping lanes have served literally as an economic lifeline to the rest of the world.
And then, in the late 1950s, entertainment also became part of the industry with the birth of the cruiseferry business.
Competing companies offered cruise ship-style amenities on vessels that previously hauled only cargo, giving rise to the concept of Baltic cruise and soon, the popularity of pleasure trips to Stockholm grew up, along with shorter voyages to Estonia and Mariehamn, capital of the Åland Islands, an archipelago between Finland and Sweden.
As a result, in 1980, the Finnish Viking Line purchased a vessel from a German shipyard and christened her the Viking Sally.
Compared to others at the time, she was larger and could accommodate both passengers and vehicles.
Painted in the company’s distinctive red and white colors, she made daily trips between Turku and Stockholm, with a stop in Mariehamn.
Up to 2,000 passengers could enjoy themselves with buffets, drink in the bars, and even load up on duty-free merchandise.
It sounds good and, in fact, she sailed without incident for six years.
…until July 10, 1986, when such an Reijo Hammar boarded the ship. The man and a female accomplice met Finnish businessman Antti Eljaala in one of the bars, and later accompanied him to his cabin. Reijo robbed the businessman, stabbed him in the neck five times with a dinner knife, and strangled him with a bedsheet.
He was able to disembark before the murder was discovered, but was later captured and sentenced to prison.
Reijo Hammar (born 1953) was later described as the most dangerous known criminal in Finland.
A year later, West German students Klaus Schelkle, 20, and Bettina Taxis, 22, planned to tour the Nordic countries on an Interrail rail pass, with the aim of travelling from West Germany to Stockholm, crossing over on a ferry to Turku, continuing up through Finland to Lapland, and returning south along the coast of Norway.
Thus they boarded the Viking Sally on July 27, 1987, in Stockholm, where they spread their sleeping bags on the heliport, settling in for the evening. However, at about 3:45 a.m., several Danish Boy Scouts discovered the bloodied couple, who had been savagely attacked.
They were airlifted to a Turku hospital, where Klaus died. Bettina survived but had no memory of the incident and was unable to help police.
One of the Boy Scouts, Thomas Nielsen, was the first person to alert ship authorities, and he told police he tried to help the two guys.
At first, he was lauded as a hero, Finnish police interviewed more than 1,000 people on the ship, and no one was arrested.
The case went cold for nearly 30 years.
Then, acting on a tip from a Danish jail where Thomas Nielsen himslef had spent about half his life for various crimes, he confessed but, because of a technicality, as his confession occurred without a lawyer present, he was found not guilty.
In any case, the Viking Sally changed hands and names several times in the early ’90s, nothing strange for ships of its type, and eventually was purchased by Estline, a shipping company with regularly routes between Tallinn and Stockholm.
Repainted blue and white and rechristened “Estonia”, she was the largest Estonian-owned ship at the time, as well as the pride of a country that regained its independence in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
On the night it sank, the crew was faulted for pushing the ship too hard through the storm, and failing to realize the cause of the list.
But this is not the end of our story.
For a whilethe tragedy also changed cruiseferry culture, reducing interest in sea travel.
And, about Reijo Hammar, the man behind the 1986 murder, he escaped from prison, shooting a guard and killing an accomplice in the process.
He then robbed several banks and stabbed someone else, before landing again in prison. Despite his violent crimes, he was eventually paroled and is believed to still be around.
Thomas Nielsen, who now goes by Herman Himle, remains also free, and he live in Denmark, while the ill-fated ship rest in peace about 76 meters beneath the Baltic, 22 nautical miles from the Finnish island of Utö….
Images from web – Google Research