Bengt-Erik Stenmark, the safety chief of Sweden's National Maritime Board, said he believed the door had 'given way under the force of huge waves, unleashing a large mass of water which caused the ship to lose its centre of gravity and set in motion an unavoidable catastrophe.'
According to one crew member, the water on the car deck had reached knee-level. Mr Stenmark said: 'With such a level of water the ship was doomed. The very swift and tragic succession of events confirms this hypothesis . . . It is possible that the water found its way into the engine room, disabling the electrical system and making the ship impossible to manoeuvre.'
Salvage teams located the wreck of the Estonia last night, but mystery surrounded the whereabouts of her co-captain, who was in 'operational command'. Estonian authorities reported that Captain Avo Piht had gone down with the ship, but members of the joint Swedish, Finnish and Estonian commission investigating the accident said yesterday that they had found him and spoken to him. He may be the only person able to explain the disaster.
Crucially, he will know whether the Estonia was going too fast for the extreme weather. He should also be able to say why passengers were not mustered for evacuation during the 30 minutes that the crew battled to repair the bow door before the ship capsized.
In a separate development the Swedish authorities yesterday accused ferry operators of covering up damage caused by heavy seas to the bow doors of several car ferries operating in the Baltic. It also emerged that another ferry, the Silja Europa, sustained bow damage on the night the Estonia sank.
The head of the International Maritime Organisation, William O'Neil, launched an inquiry into the safety of roll-on roll-off ferries, and Sweden ordered a safety review of passenger vessels in its waters.
Ships were still searching yesterday for corpses. There were conflicting accounts of numbers on the ferry. Swedish officials said many children under the age of five were not registered on the passenger list.
A Norwegian boy, Mats Finnanger, 12, was the youngest survivor.
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