Can underwater film-makers desecrate a wreck simply by capturing images of it? When Divernet posed that question in February 2021 the answer from a Swedish court appeared to be no – but now the retrial of two Swedes who filmed the wreck of the doomed Estonia ferry has overturned that judgment.
On 5 September, Henrik Evertsson and Linus Andersson were found guilty of violating the sanctity of the 80m-deep wreck-site where all but 137 of 989 passengers and crew had died on 28 September, 1994.
The Estonia sinking, one of the 20th century’s worst maritime disasters, took less than 40 minutes. The cruise ferry had encountered heavy seas while sailing across the Baltic Sea from Tallinn in Estonia to Stockholm.
Deciding against salvaging the wreck, Sweden, Estonia and Finland agreed in 1995 to designate the site as a final resting place that could not be disturbed under their new “Estonia Law”.
Survivors and families of the dead remained unconvinced about the findings of the initial investigation, and 24 years later Evertsson and Andersson sent down an ROV along with divers from Norwegian company Rockwater to film the wreck.
The resulting Discovery documentary series Estonia – A Find That Changes Everything, aired in 2020. It revealed for the first time a 4 x 1.2m hole in the hull, calling into question the findings of the inquiry.
It had previously been concluded that a defective lock had allowed the bow door to be wrenched open by the sea to flood the car deck. However, according to experts this would not have resulted in such a rapid sinking. They also reckoned that only impact with a heavy object such as a ship or submarine travelling at 2-4 knots could account for the holing.
Sanctity of the dead
The case against photo-journalist and director Evertsson and deep-sea analyst Andersson, which had threatened jail sentences of up to two years, was originally dismissed on a technicality.
Gothenburg District Court found in February 2021 that although the pair had committed actions punishable under the Estonia Law, they were not accountable because they had operated from a German-flagged ship in international waters, and Germany had not signed the 1995 agreement. The decision was reported on Divernet.
The retrial came about when a Gothenburg appeals court ruled that the Estonia Law did apply to the documentary-makers because they were Swedish, and referred the case back to a lower court.
Overturning the previous decision, Judge Goran Lundahl said that “protecting the sanctity of the dead is more important than protecting freedom of expression and information” and sentenced the film-makers to be fined. The amount was not specified, but he indicated that it would be mitigated by the fact that they believed themselves to be acting in the public interest.
Following the documentary, the law was amended to allow the Estonia to be dived, and a new investigation began in July 2021, including a photogrammetric survey. This June the Estonian Safety Investigation Bureau and Swedish Accident Investigation Board revealed that the damage on the starboard side of the wreck was considerably greater than previously estimated.
The initial surveys had shown a deformed area that included holes, cracks and indentations measuring 4 x 22m but it was now recognised to cover at least 6 x 40m, with some of it hidden beneath the hull. Further damage to boat decks and the starboard corner of the stern was also recorded.