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Thursday, November 2, 2000

Sweden Doubts Estonia Blast Conclusion

By Joseph DitzlerOf the Journal

    The Swedish government, for one, sees no reason to take seriously Santa Fean F. Gregg Bemis Jr.'s claim that he found evidence of an explosion at some point aboard the doomed Baltic Sea ferry Estonia.
    Carmila Buzaglo, spokeswoman for the Swedish Ministry of Industry, Employment and Communications, said Wednesday her government had seen nothing official that undermines the conclusion drawn by a three-country commission that investigated the 1994 sinking. Bemis and a privately funded dive crew visited the wreck in August, but because of equipment problems and poor weather spent only a few hours on the wreck.
    "There hasn't been any new information which could be the basis for a new investigation," Buzaglo said by phone. "There's no reason to call the final report of the Joint Accident Investigation Commission into question."
    Buzaglo knew of Bemis' claims through media reports but she said because Swedish authorities allege Bemis broke the law by visiting the wreck, any fruits of his expedition, such as videotape, are considered evidence against him.
    The Estonia, with approximately 1,000 passengers and crew aboard, foundered and sank in heavy seas the night of Sept. 28, 1994. The ship, en route to Stockholm, Sweden, from Tallin, Estonia, took 852 people to their deaths when it sank just south of Finland.
    A Swedish-Estonian-Finnish commission determined the locks on the ship's bow-door visor failed, allowing heavy seas to jar the 56-ton assembly loose, flooding car decks.
    Critics of the official investigation questioned its timeliness and whether it was carried out free of corruption. Journalists and government officials in Sweden and Finland, though, have said their countrymen by and large accept the commission findings.
    Bemis, 72, a venture capitalist and wreck salvager, and German filmmaker Jutta Rabe funded the August expedition to the 250-foot-deep wreck site in response to concerns raised by some victims' families. Bemis, Rabe and a team of German volunteer divers examined the Estonia and retrieved two samples from the hull.
    Two German materials laboratories tested the samples, taken from an area near the bow visor. A British expert reviewed both reports and concluded they provide "indisputable proof" an explosion took place at or near that site, according to his report.
    Bemis said those tests cannot determine when or why something detonated on the vessel.
    He said Wednesday he and Rabe intend to notify the three nations' heads of state of their findings.
    Buzaglo said she could not say whether Bemis' findings could constitute a reason to revisit the Estonia sinking.
    "If there would be such a new investigation, it would be after further negotiations with the other countries over disturbing the final resting place of the Estonia."
    Seven countries, including Sweden, Estonia and Finland but neither Germany nor the United States, agreed to a treaty designating a 2-kilometer-square area in international waters around the Estonia wreck as a burial ground off-limits to divers and boaters.
    "Say you are in Sweden and talking to people (about going to the designated wreck site), then it's absolutely forbidden," she said.
    Simply passing through the no-trespassing zone is analogous to digging a coffin up out of a grave, Buzaglo said.
    Swedish authorities have issued arrest warrants for Bemis and Rabe, who as German and U.S. citizens, respectively, cannot be prosecuted unless they travel to Sweden or are extradited, unlikely since neither Germany nor the United States are signatories to the treaty. Bemis said he believes the warrants were meant to discourage further investigation.
    A prosecutor in Stockholm has charge of the investigation into the expedition, Buzaglo said.
    Bemis has said he expected only to recover some of the $200,000 he estimated it cost to mount the weeklong Estonia expedition by selling the first rights to the story to Spiegel TV of Germany. Critics in Sweden and Finland have questioned whether he and Rabe intended from the outset to capitalize on the venture.

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