25 Years Since MS Estonia: Ferry Disaster Strengthened Cooperation in the Baltic Sea Region

Aino Salmi / Finnish Red Cross.
Cooperation between neighbour countries is essential in major accidents. Estonian Red Cross invited Finnish Red Cross staff and volunteers to practice the management of the evacuation centre in 2017.
Image: Aino Salmi / Finnish Red Cross.

September 28, 2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the shipwreck of MS Estonia, which took the lives of 852 people. The disaster was a turning point to the psychosocial support organized by the Red Cross and it strengthened joined preparedness efforts between neighbouring Red Cross Societies.

The ferry MS Estonia was on its way from Tallinn to Stockholm with 989 people on board, when the visor in the ship’s bow door damaged and water started to flood into the vehicle deck. The ship sank fast, and a strong autumn storm complicated the rescue efforts.

Altogether 852 people died in the worst maritime accident of the Baltic Sea. Most of the victims were Swedish and Estonian, but also Finnish. There were 137 survivors.

Psychological aid for survivors

In Finland, it was 5.30 in the morning of 28 September 1994, when the national preparedness group of psychologists of the Finnish Red Cross (FRC) received an alert from the police psychologist Lasse Nurmi. The group had been launched only a year earlier. Altogether 45 psychologists helped the survivors.

– The FRC assisted authorities by establishing places where the victims were transferred after having been rescued or via hospital. The victims got dry clothes, hygiene articles, food and a place to sleep, tells Leena Kämäräinen, Head of National Preparedness at the Finnish Red Cross, who participated in the operation.

– Psychologists were present, but more importantly the victims could share their own experiences. They could also contact their relatives, and the FRC assisted to organize their trips back home.

The amount of people in need was a challenge, but pre-agreements done while drafting disaster preparedness plans facilitated the aid work.

Disaster preparedness has been a priority within the FRC. After MS Estonia, the FRC started to strengthen its psychosocial support and preparedness cooperation with the neighbouring countries.

Support from neigbours

When the news about the accident reached Estonia and Sweden, confused relatives filled the ferry terminals in Tallinn and Stockholm. Cooperation between the Estonian, Swedish and Finnish Red Cross started immediately.

Coping with a disaster of this scale was a huge challenge for the re-established Estonian Red Cross (ERC).The ERC did not have the necessary preparedness and resources. Luckily colleagues from the Finnish Red Cross (FRC) and the Swedish Red Cross (SRC) supported the ERC. For example, the FRC immediately sent a cooperation delegate to Estonia to coordinate aid provision, and psychosocial support was coordinated by another Finnish delegate.

The FRC psychologists also provided psychosocial support to ERC volunteers and staff members. Further, the FRC and SRC collected donations to Estonian survivors and families who had lost their loved ones.

– Immediately after the disaster, Estonian Red Cross launched its tracing service. ERC volunteers transmitted the data received from FRC and SRC to the families of passengers, tells Tracing Officer Sirje Eller from the ERC.

For the ERC this was the first cooperation project with sister National Societies in the field of disaster response. It clearly demonstrated the urgent need for joint training systems and common understanding in the field of emergency preparedness and response.

On the other shore of the Baltic Sea, the Swedish Red Cross provided psychosocial support to the relatives of the victims and employees of the ferries that participated in the rescue operation.

– The Swedish Red Cross wasn’t summoned to participate in the action taken towards the relatives of the passengers of Estonia. A number of SRC officers decided to join the crisis center situated at the ferry terminal, remembers Jonas Prawitz from the SRC.

– The main learning from the disaster was that the SRC ought to have a role in national disaster preparedness. Ever since, we have worked with capacity building of our preparedness skills and developing a natural role in the national system. Co-operation has been established with other National Societies.

BALTPREP strengthens preparedness

The Baltic Sea region covers a significant area of northern Europe, representing nearly a fifth of the EU population. The region shares common features and challenges. Over the past few years, issues of preparedness have emerged strongly in the region. One regional initiative to address this issue is the BALTPREP Consortium project, which enhances regional preparedness and response capacities in the Baltic Sea Region to enable more effective and timely response to major accidents and disasters. The project also strengthens collaboration between RCNSs and civil protection authorities within the Baltic Sea region. 

The BALTPREP Consortium consists of seven Red Cross National Societies: Finland, Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. Swedish and Russian Red Cross Societies participate in project activities.

– The participating countries will benefit from a better understanding of existing response capacities and assets around the region, more trained staff and volunteers, and a Regional Preparedness Plan for the Baltic Sea Region describes Maria Katajisto from the FRC, who coordinates the BALTPREP Project.

– As a concrete example, a Baltic Sea region -specific course on Regional Disaster Response Teams (RDRT) was organized in Finland this August. RDRT teams are composed of staff and volunteers of Red Cross National Societies, who assist neighbouring National Societies, often with the benefit of relevant language skills and a solid cultural and contextual understanding, Katajisto adds.

The BALTPREP project is funded by the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) / Union Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM).