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?

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