ABQjournal.com : A service of the Albuquerque Journal
October 30, 2000

Getting To The Bottom

By Joseph Ditzler
Of the Journal

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    The Baltic Sea ferry Estonia, which took 852 people to their graves when it sank in 1994, experienced an explosion on board at some point in its tortured existence, according to diver F. Gregg Bemis Jr. of Santa Fe.
    Relying on tests done on two metal samples taken from the hull, Bemis said recently an explosion occurred aboard the 57-ton vessel in the vicinity of the starboard forward bulkhead. Bemis could not say for sure when or why the explosion occurred, whether before or after its Sept. 28, 1994, sinking. But, he said the explosion took place at or near the bow door visor, which an official trilateral commission determined opened up in heavy seas and caused the ship to sink.
    "I would hope this strong evidence, which corroborates the fact there was an explosion at the ramp area, would also force a new investigation," Bemis said. "Since there's been no explanation or assumption that there was an explosion, it seems to me to demand an explanation."
    Bemis drew the ire of Swedish government officials and castigation from Finnish members of the trilateral commission for his August expedition with German filmmaker Jutta Rabe, to dive on the wreck. Bemis, 72, didn't descend on the wreck but a team of German volunteers dove on it for several days under the watchful eyes of Swedish coast guard and media from several nations.
    The two samples they retrieved, about 2 square feet each, were analyzed in September by two German materials testing laboratories   —   the Material Testing Laboratory of the State of Brandenburg and the DN Institute for Materials Testing and Materials Engineering, Clausthal-Zellerfeld, Germany, Bemis said. A British metals expert, B.H.L. Braidwood, reviewed both reports and concluded in his own four-page summary that the test results "provide indisputable proof that the samples were exposed to the effects of an explosion in the Estonia."
    Rabe, who filmed the expedition, and Bemis planned to unveil their findings in a television documentary aired by Spiegel TV in Germany. However, Bemis made the results available after Swedish authorities obtained a warrant for his and Rabe's arrests for diving on the wreck, which is outlawed under a seven-nation treaty. Bemis, the Republican candidate for state House District 47, said he wanted to clear his name before the Nov. 7 election.
    Bemis told the Albuquerque Journal that he thought the Swedish arrest warrants were meant to dissuade further research into the Estonia sinking.
    Attempts over three days to obtain a response from the Swedish government, which had been particularly critical of Bemis' expedition, were unsuccessful. A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Industry, Employment and Communications, which had fielded inquiries in the past, said the minister was out of Stockholm last week.
    A spokesman for one of Sweden's largest groups of families of Estonia victims, Lennart Berglund, said Wednesday he would push for his government to reopen the Estonia investigation.
    "We will certainly demand somebody with some credibility will review (the test results) and come to some kind of conclusion," he said. "We've been waiting for something to come out of (Bemis' expedition.)"
    Sweden, Finland and Estonia jointly conducted the original investigation. Crews raised the suspect bow door visor, the ship's bow, essentially, which stands several stories high and weighs 56 tons. A commission in 1995 determined the visor locking devices failed to secure properly and heavy seas jarred the visor open, allowing water to flood the car deck and sink the Estonia. The ship, carrying about 1,000 passengers, sank at night during a storm in heavy seas.
    Critics such as Berglund have called the investigation itself flawed, primarily because of a perceived conflict of interest between the three countries and their respective roles in the Estonia probe. The ship sank in 250 feet of water just south of Finland on a regular run between Stockholm and Tallinn, the capital of Estonia.
    Alternative theories persist today, including allegations of government cover-ups of clandestine activity or misconduct. Representatives of the commission in Swedish and Finnish media have dismissed those notions, saying the sheer number of people involved in the investigation render that type of secrecy impossible.
    Still, questions remain. Bemis, a self-described venture capitalist usually described in Scandinavian press accounts as an American millionaire, teamed with Rabe to look for answers. The two fielded the expedition on their own at a cost of about $200,000, Bemis has said. The volunteer divers asked only that their costs be paid, he said. Bemis said he hoped to recover some costs by selling the film footage to Spiegel TV.
    The samples they retrieved, according to Braidwood's summary, showed several indicators they had been exposed to an explosive force.
    An examination of the metal composition revealed a change in its structure, a deformation that causes a sheet of metal to look as if it is composed of several layers. The Estonia sample showed evidence a shock and heat wave had passed through it, "such as happens from the effects of a substance detonating," Braidwood wrote.
    Also, engineers know that explosive force hardens metal. The Estonia sample showed evidence of such hardening, outside of any hardening that might have occurred during the making of the metal, Braidwood wrote.
    Braidwood wrote that both laboratories found evidence that a high explosive charge had detonated aboard the ship. Bemis said he would have the samples examined further in the United States.

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