Sunday, 28 September 2014

In memoriam MS Estonia

This blog is mostly about books, but occasionally I just want to write some personal musings. Do a spot of writing things out of my system. This is one of those.

It has been 20 years since the MS Estonia disaster.
If you don't live somewhere around the Baltic Sea, I won't be surprised if you have never heard of this shipwreck - especially if you're under thirty - or just don't remember it any more. But around here, it's still synonymous with devastation.

It was a big disaster. Over 850 people lost their lives as MS Estonia sank. Most of them were Swedish and Estonian. Many of those who managed to get away from the sinking ship died in the stormy, freezing cold sea.

There weren't so many Finns on the ship, which was en route from Tallinn to Stockholm. I had no personal connection to the tragedy. But I remember how it shocked me, as it shocked all the Finns I knew. I think we all felt to some degree 'it could just as well have been me.' Travelling on the Baltic sea in a big cruise ferry, whether for work or leisure, was such a normal thing to do - as it still is.

Estonia is a small country. In the years after the disaster, whenever I was in Estonia and the MS Estonia tragedy was spoken of, it seemed to me that everyone had some kind of personal connection. If it wasn't an immediate family member or relative, there was a connection through a neighbour, a colleague, a schoolmate, a friend of a friend - someone they knew, in some way or another, had been on the ship, died or survived.

In the spring of 1998, when the film Titanic was released in this part of the world, I was in Estonia. We went to see it. The cinema in Tartu was old - my most vivid memory of the place is the wooden folding seat. Yes, wooden. It got a bit uncomfortable during the 3+ hours of the film. (I remember thinking 'just sink already' as DiCaprio and Winslet seemed to be endlessly running along the ship's corridors.)

But what was making me even more uncomfortable than my seat was the consciousness that sitting all around me were Estonians who were likely to have some kind of personal connections to a more recent shipwreck tragedy. It was less than four years since MS Estonia.

In the dark cinema, I wondered: how many others here are remembering MS Estonia, too? I'm sorry to say I did not feel much for the leading couple of the film. I felt more for the ordinary people trapped in their cheap cabins far down in the ship, like the Irish mother and her little children. The people who had no chance of saving themselves. Like so many on MS Estonia. Asleep in the middle of the night, when suddenly everything turns around and you don't have time to get out anymore. I felt almost sick in the cinema, trying not to imagine what happens to the people inside a passenger ship that sinks. What would I feel if it was myself and my family trapped in there?

I haven't wanted to watch Titanic since.

We still travel on these cruise ferries, more reminiscent of floating cities than means of transport. Usually, we do not worry that a disaster might strike again - no, not us. This huge, beautiful modern thing could not possibly sink, right? Security and safety measures have improved a lot since (and because of) the MS Estonia disaster. People are doing their best to keep these kinds of accidents from ever happening again.

And yet there are shipwrecks like the Costa Concordia cruise ship in Italy or the ferry MV Sewol in South Korea. People still die at sea - people who were only going for a leisure trip, or people who were only doing their jobs.

I may forget the film Titanic, but I hope to never forget RMS Titanic, or MS Estonia - the 'Titanic' of the Baltic Sea - for that matter. 

I hope to never forget that we cannot take any day of our lives for granted. Whether we go out to sea or stay at home. 

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, 
and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.”
Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. 
You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.
Instead, you ought to say, 
“If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.”
James 4:13-15

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