We All Have Our Tragedies: The Sinking of the 'Estonia'

TALLIN, Estonia -- Yesterday evening I was wandering around Tallin, Estonia when I came upon a very heavily armed policeman who was standing among low-hanging branches of a tree that obscured his face.

A little creeped out by this, I walked on and noticed a formally dressed crowd standing quietly around a statue. On the statue's long, rectangular base appeared to be inscriptions, but they were covered by bouquets of flowers. Lighted candles burned on the ground.

The statue itself was an odd thing: a narrow, rectangular shaft about three feet by one foot, springing from the base and curving for a few yards over a field until it suddenly ended in mid-air.

(Credit: Lee Ferran / Code and Dagger)

(Credit: Lee Ferran / Code and Dagger)

I walked further and ran into another heavily armed policeman, and this time I decided to ask him what was going on. He took a second to answer, I think both surprised that I was talking to him and needing a moment to arrange his words in English. 

When he was ready, he looked at me very solemnly and with great reverence said, "It's for the memorial. The 'Estonia,' the ship, it sank 23 years ago today."

He looked at me like he was expecting something, but I had never heard of the "Estonia," didn't know it sank in 1994 and definitely didn't know, as I'd learn later, that hundreds of people drowned in the incident. So I just mumbled, "Oh, wow... thank you..." and walked on.

Taking a left and walking up a hill heading back towards the Old Town, I saw the rest of the statue. It was the same as the other part -- the large, flat something bending over the field in the direction of the other piece. If it had kept going, the two sides would've connected into a long, low arch. But it, too, stopped suddenly in mid-air just past the edge of the hill.

(Credit: Lee Ferran / Code and Dagger)

(Credit: Lee Ferran / Code and Dagger)

A plaque at the base of this end read in Estonian and English, "'Broken Line' - in memory of the 852 people who lost their lives in the ESTONIA passenger ferry catastrophe on 28 September 1994."

Later that night I was in a bar not far away and I asked a group of young Estonians if they knew about the sinking of the "Estonia." Each one of them said that of course they knew about it, but they were too young to actually remember when the ship went down off the coast of Finland. (In 1994 perhaps I would've been old enough to remember if I had been told, but I was much too young to have been paying attention the news.)

One of the Estonians starting talking about conspiracy theories -- suggesting that the official story of the sinking being the result of sudden mechanical failure amid a powerful nighttime storm was actually a cover story for the intentional sinking of the ship to disrupt a secret intelligence operation involving the smuggling of military hardware, as was claimed in the British liberal magazine New Statesman.

But either way it occurred to me that those young people knew of the sinking in a simple, matter-of-fact way that people all over the world endure and absorb their national tragedies. Ask any American about tragedies in U.S. history and you're certain to get 9/11 but going further back you might get the Challenger explosion, the sinking of the Titanic or the Great Chicago Fire.

Just like people, you can ask questions and study all you like, but it's almost impossible to know the depth of a nation's history and the multitudes of trying times and resulting scars that shaped it.

If you want to learn more about the sinking of the "Estonia" and you read Finnish, here's the official report. For the rest of us, in 2008 the German magazine Der Spiegel reported (in English) on a new simulation of the incident.

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(Credit: Lee Ferran / Code and Dagger)

(Credit: Lee Ferran / Code and Dagger)

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