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Sweden Mourns Lives Lost in Huge Maritime Disaster

By Dean E. Murphy and Mary Williams Walsh
Los Angeles Times

Police were writing tickets, patrolling the streets and making arrests, but the Stockholm police department, like much of Sweden, was finding the heartache Thursday nearly too much to bear.

Sixty-eight employees of the police force were among the passengers aboard the ferry boat Estonia, which sank in the turbulent Baltic Sea early Wednesday in one of Europe's worst maritime disasters. Five employees survived, but the others are among the more than 800 people still missing and presumed dead.

"It is like a whole generation has vanished," said a teary-eyed Lotta Eriksson, who, like the victims, is a civilian employee of the department. "There is an enormous emptiness everywhere, in the canteen, in the corridors."

The police employees, who were attending a union seminar aboard the Estonia, were among a handful of large groups from communities across Sweden that made up much of the passenger list. In a country where ferry cruises are a favorite national pasttime, images of pajama-clad corpses being snatched from the sea have created a deep sense of agony not felt since the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme eight years ago.

"People are exhausted both physically and emotionally," said Soren Carlsson, chief nurse at Stockholm's Sodersjukhuset hospital, where some of the 140 survivors have been treated. "There is sadness today. Maybe the anger comes tomorrow."

In the eastern town of Norrkoping, none of the 56 members of a retirement club has turned up alive. The club had organized one of its many getaway excursions, this time to the Estonian capital of Tallinn for some shopping and sightseeing. For about $120 each, members got meals, lodging and transportation for three days.

The sense of horror in the industrial town southwest of Stockholm was made worse by accounts Thursday of the panic aboard the sinking vessel. Some survivors hospitalized in Finland spoke of desperate efforts to get off the ship, with some frail and elderly passengers, knowing they could not make it, giving up and dropping to the floor in tears.

"People here are seeing pictures in their minds of their relatives and friends trapped in the ferry at the bottom of the sea," said Gert Forge, a psychiatric nurse at the Norrkoping senior citizen center. "The biggest problem here is that none of the 56 has been found."

Finnish Coast Guard Capt. Raimo Tiilikainen, who is in charge of the rescue effort, said only 65 bodies had been retrieved from the sea by late Thursday. Although accounts continue to vary on the number of people on board, authorities say there are as many as 800 others still in the sunken boat or lost at sea.

In Stockholm, owners of the ferry apologized for the disaster and said they were eagerly searching for one of the craft's two captains, who was reported by Finnish authorities to have survived. Officials from Estline, the ferry's part owners, said they have not been able to locate Estonian captain Ahvo Piht.

"I am sure he will be able to provide valuable information," said Sten-Crister Forsberg, executive vice president of Nordstrom & Thulin, Estland's Swedish parent company. "I can assure you in that weather he was probably on the bridge."

Forsberg said the cause of the sinking was still unknown, but he hinted that the investigation was focusing on eyewitness accounts of water flooding the large car deck. Although Forsberg insisted that the seals on the deck ramps were not faulty, he said the flooded deck was likely "the main cause of the accident."

Per Forsskahl, managing director of the Finnish Ship Owners Association, also said water leaking into the ship probably caused the accident, and he pointed an accusing finger at the crew. "There must have been something wrong with the way the crew handled the situation," he said.

In Estonia, many wondered whether the ferry company's monopoly status on the Stockholm-Tallinn line - a legacy of Soviet rule - had contributed to lax safety standards. The state-run Estonian Shipping Co., which owns half of Estline, is one of the biggest and most profitable companies in Estonia.

Swedish and Finnish news reports have speculated the Estonian crew was not up to the job, was hired on the cheap and may have contributed to problems because of inexperience and language barriers. Estline officials said the Estonian crew members were qualified to run the vessel.