Vanishing captain holds key to riddle of disaster - World - News - The Independent

Vanishing captain holds key to riddle of disaster

A BLACK and white passport- sized photograph shows an earnest young man in a dark suit and thin tie. Handwritten scribbles on the same dog-eared card - labelled in black Cyrillic script as property of the Order of the Red Banner Ferry Company - records past membership of the Communist Party, graduation from the Tallinn Maritime School and training in Leningrad.

The sombre face and exemplary record belong to Avo Piht, 39 years old, 19 years at sea and, just possibly, the one man still alive who could tell exactly what happened soon after midnight on Tuesday night aboard the Estonia.

He is also the man who will help determine whether the Baltic Sea's worst peacetime tragedy is remembered as a disaster or - and far worse for the tiny state of Estonia whose name the vessel carried on its vast white hull - a disgrace.

Experts have now pinpointed the wreck of the Estonia, lying in waters some 80 metres (40 fathoms) deep off the coast of Finland. Still unsolved, though, is the riddle of the 'phantom captain'. What happened to Avo Piht?

Does he lie at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, the dark but honourable fate colleagues in Tallinn insist is most likely, or has he become a Baltic Lord Jim, somehow saved from the sinking ship and now on the run from authorities and his own conscience? Convinced that Mr Piht is alive are his wife, Sirye, son Egon and close friends, now gathered at the family flat in the suburbs of Tallinn to await what they consider an imminent phonecall. 'We think, we know he is still living,' said Elve Vailmar. 'This is not the first time he has gone away for a long time. We are used to it. All we can do is wait.' She said television pictures had clearly shown his face.

'I would like to think that Captain Piht escaped and is for some reason in a state that prevents him from talking himself,' said the Estonian transport minister, Ande Meister. He suggested that the ship's Swedish and Estonian owners might have reason to conceal his whereabouts. But he rated the possibility of Mr Piht having survived at 'one in a million'.

When the ferry set out from the Estonian capital of Tallinn on Tuesday evening, Mr Piht was officially on board just for the ride. He was not in charge but on his way to Sweden for a test that, if passed, would allow him to sail into Stockholm on his own without having to take on a local pilot. Only one other Estonian had such a right: Arvo Andresson, the captain on the bridge when the Estonia sank shortly after one o'clock on Wednesday morning.

Captain Andresson went down with the ferry, according to Mr Meister. 'He decided to do what captains have to do - to sink with the ship.' All clarity vanishes, though, when it comes to the fate of Mr Piht, who was also thought to have been on the bridge as the ship lurched to the side. 'Some people not friendly to Estonia have said a lot of things. There are many rumours,' Mr Meister said.

'When a tragedy happens it is human nature to look for someone guilty,' said Toomas Songi, personnel director of the Estonian Shipping Company. 'But sometimes no one at all is guilty. In my view circumstances, not people, are guilty.' His desk is stacked with files, each one with a passport-size photograph attached. Of the 140 crew Mr Songi hired to work on the Estonia, most are now dead. Only three of 14 officers are known to have survived. Mr Songi's hands shake and lips tremble as he surveys a terrible human wreckage that no amount of bureaucratic punctiliousness can diminish.

It is the case of Captain Piht, however, that causes the most pain. On him and a tiny cadre of other Estonian officers rested the promise of Estonia one day recovering a maritime tradition smothered for half a century by the Russians.

'I exclude the possibility of his running away. This is too terrible a judgement,' said Mr Songi. 'He was professional, exact, punctual.'

In other words, he was not merely an exemplary sailor but an exemplary Estonian. The Estonians are braced by an exacting Lutheran faith and stiffened further by a deep conviction that they, more than any other former subjects of the Soviet Union, belong firmly in Europe.

'Estonia is the most successful state in central Europe,' declared President Meri, in an interview with the Independent on Sunday at his brick and stone mansion outside Tallinn on Friday night. 'Is the fact of this ship going down somehow a symbol of our nation's fate? No.' On the wall of his office hangs a grey oil painting of the fog-bound sea. A deeply learned and determinedly eccentric figure, the president sounds almost callous in his calm, cerebral response to the horror aboard the Estonia: 'The sea from time to time needs sacrifices. This is very deeply rooted in our culture.'

Estonians are proud of the hard work and sober habits that have made Tallinn, at least in its centre, a place where streets are clean, taxis use meters and phones work. They sniff at the reckless disorder of the Russians, the people who occupied them for half a century and who, despite a final troop pull- out at the end of August, still account for nearly a third of the tiny country's 1.6 million population.

In such a minuscule state, the sinking of the Estonia has been both a big blow to the national ego and an intimate personal tragedy. Virtually everyone knows someone who perished. In parliament, Estonian politicians defend with slightly too much vigour their country's place in Europe: 'Are Britain and France banana republics because ferries sank there too?' spluttered Rein Helme, chairman of the parliamentary defence committee. 'It was not the fault of British civilisation that the Titanic sank. It was the tragic sum of little mistakes.'

Whether investigators can ever work out just how little or how big any such errors might have been, however, will depend on the conclusion of a missing person report filed with Estonian police on Friday. Where is Avo Piht?

Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape
music
News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
filmMatt Damon in talks to return
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Life and Style
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
tech(but you can't escape: Bono is always on your iPhone)
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
Arts and Entertainment
Fringe show: 'Cilla', with Sheridan Smith in the title role and Aneurin Barnard as her future husband Bobby Willis
tvEllen E Jones on ITV's 'Cilla'
News
i100
Sport
Tim Wiese
sport
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
SCIENCE
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Manager with some Agile experience

£45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsf...

Data/ MI Analyst

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cur...

Project Manager (retail, upgrades, rollouts)

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Project...

Project Manager (upgrades, rollouts, migrations)

£350 - £425 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Project Manager - 3 mont...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week