A Sea Story
January 12, 2014 2:04 AM   Subscribe

A Sea Story: One of the worst maritime disasters in European history [....]
Another gripping account by William Langewiesche. (Previously: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)
posted by Joe in Australia (24 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
That was terrifying. I'd heard plenty about the Estonia, but never pictured those 20 minutes as it sank. I'd never considered that people would get as thuggish as that towards the end.
posted by ambrosen at 3:40 AM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

A terrifying story, very well told. It felt a little incomplete, as it left the story with the few survivors adrift in a stormy ocean, but I can understand the stylistic choice. That being said, the pedant in me needs to point out that aluminium does not smell.
posted by YAMWAK at 4:36 AM on January 12, 2014

Previous Estonia thread with more detail about how, why and what happened to the people left floating in the darkness. (also with link to this article in comments).
posted by Lebannen at 6:40 AM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

This was expanded to be one of the major parts of his book Outlaw Sea, which I very much enjoyed. (The book, not this unbelievable loss.)

His voice is low and urgent, and hearing him retell this horror as an audiobook was more emotionally intense than I had expected.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:56 AM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Back in the old days, I was taking the QE2 from NYC to Southampton, England and met a young man... a American CPA.

He was terrified of flying, so he always travelled by boat.

He had ONE client in the UK, who paid for him to go back and forth.

He was a survivor of the Estonia sinking.

I asked him if he had ever been in any plane crashes. Not only had he not, but he did not know anyone else who had ever died in a plane crash.

Fear. It's what's for dinner. Irrationality is for dessert.
posted by FauxScot at 6:59 AM on January 12, 2014 [6 favorites]

I would absolutely have died.

I feel sick to my stomach, having read this.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 7:18 AM on January 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

his book

I love Langewiesche's articles, but never thought to check if he had any books, durr/woohoo!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:35 AM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

That was horrifying, as are the conspiracy theories. It's very disquieting to consider the fact that there might have been people who actively had a hand in causing this tragedy, as opposed to it being the sum of sloppy mistakes. Thanks for the post.
posted by undue influence at 8:20 AM on January 12, 2014

One of my favorite Langewiesche articles (that is also featured in The Outlaw Sea) is Anarchy At Sea, which is similar to the Vanity Fair piece that is link 4 above but took a broader view of piracy in the Indian Ocean and did a great of job of painting it as something like Grand Theft Freighter.

But I remember reading this article nearly ten years ago when it first came out, and just thinking "oh god, it's that bit about the Estonia sinking" gave me chills all over again. So many great passages about the hair-thin line between death and survival.
posted by bl1nk at 8:42 AM on January 12, 2014

When I read the title of this post, I thought it would be about the sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff or the sinking of the MV Goya.
posted by Daddy-O at 9:11 AM on January 12, 2014

Given that there have been many problems with ro-ro ferries, which are hard to make safe because they don't have compartmentalization on their parking deck, which is just one huge empty space, it seems reasonable to assume that this was just a result of a poor design and general negligence. I wouldn't board a ro-ro ferry unless you could convince me that this one was safe.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 11:52 AM on January 12, 2014

The conspiracy theories from the previous Estonia thread are indeed scary and sort of plausible. Weren't there tests done on the metal that showed an explosion was involved, rather than the hatch just falling off? That, and all of the surviving crew members (9 or 10 people) were helicoptered out and their numbers aren't included in the final totals which are at 135 and so should really be 145. Plus the recovery team sent down there to bring up the mystery suitcase handcuffed to the Russian (?) weapons executive ... I mean I know I sound crazy but it seems like there are a lot of open questions there.
posted by onlyconnect at 12:02 PM on January 12, 2014

Maybe it's not weird for the crew not to be included in the survivor count, but it IS unusual for them to have completely disappeared after the wreck.
posted by onlyconnect at 12:05 PM on January 12, 2014

Man, thanks for reminding me about Langewiesche - he is flat-out amazing. Check his wiki for links to a whole swath of other excellent longform pieces.
posted by turbid dahlia at 1:47 PM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

His parents shouted at him to save himself, as did his girlfriend. It was practical advice. There was no time to linger over the decision. He turned and continued on alone.
What an awful decision to be faced with.

It shouldn't be any surprise that these situations bring out both the best and worst in people - it strips people down to their core, their carefully-crafted public face gone to reveal the person that truly lives inside them.
posted by dg at 2:20 PM on January 12, 2014

this gave me a nightmare. So thanks for that.
posted by bq at 4:50 PM on January 12, 2014

The Joint Commission report is available here, for those of you who, like me, have a self-destructive need to know every last horrible, haunting detail.
posted by minervous at 6:22 PM on January 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm confused. Is there another page to click through to? It seems like the article just cuts off in the middle, with no description of the rescue, the aftermath, etc.
posted by tom_r at 6:36 PM on January 12, 2014

No. For almost everyone involved, there was neither rescue nor aftermath.
posted by dg at 7:10 PM on January 12, 2014

The article does stop rather abruptly. I think you need to assume that if the writer described anyone's inner hightail or actions in detail, especially if that person was alone, that person must have been rescued. Also see the link up further to the previous Estonia thread, which gives lots more information.
posted by onlyconnect at 8:29 PM on January 12, 2014

Wow, that's exceptionally well-written - a model of effective reportorial writing.
posted by Frobenius Twist at 8:37 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Someone is working to create a blog consisting of biographical entries for everyone involved:

The Crew
The Passengers
Victims and Survivors

posted by 1367 at 10:05 PM on January 12, 2014 [3 favorites]

It seems like the article just cuts off in the middle, with no description of the rescue, the aftermath, etc.

It's a survival narrative. It is not dry reportage.

Wow, that's exceptionally well-written - a model of effective reportorial writing.

I consider it one of the finest pieces of magazine writing ever published, personally. The thing is (as above), I fear we're losing our collective taste for anything that isn't in a blog post length or (the similarly historical) AP pyramid style. It's a fine tradition that shouldn't be lost just because we now tweet or text and get our news in paragraph summaries (assuming we click past the headline).

In any case, Langeweische's style blends elements of the New Journalism with a 'non-fiction novel' approach that creates a flow not unlike (to use a related example) the way that Cameron's ingenious screenplay for Titanic essentially built in excuses to have Jack and Rose traipse up and down the decks from the bow to the stern and into the depths of the evacuation, versus the standard disaster movie tropes of following various groups of characters to their doom or rescue as it were, making each one its own unbearable melodrama. Similarly, Langeweische finds a character or two in his stories to provide that narrative hook and finds ways in telling their real story to insert digressive material that would normally be presented in a drier, separate form. I'm in awe every time I read it.
posted by dhartung at 11:02 PM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Langewiesche is such a great writer. I like the way it cuts off like this, and also how the narrative doesn't include any broader framing of the story. And very little inner monolog reporting, it's just this crazy dry factual reporting. God I hate myself for asking this, but is there any writing like this about what took place inside the World Trade Center buildings?

Mostly reading this I was recalling Cameron's film Titanic, and how despite all his filmmakers art it was nothing nearly as terrifying as this simple narrative text. Langewiesche didn't even need out-of-sync strobe lights to induce anxiety.
posted by Nelson at 8:14 AM on January 14, 2014

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