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The Estonia ferry disaster: Survivors’ memory reports of a life threatening event

Conference contribution
Authors Emma Roos Af Hjelmsäter
Lisa Öhman
Pär-Anders Granhag
Published in Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, June 2015, Victoria, Canada
Publication year 2015
Published at Department of Psychology
Language en
Keywords archival study, eyewitness testimony, traumatic event, memory, accident investigation
Subject categories Applied Psychology


The generalizability of laboratory studies on eyewitness memory can be problematic, for example due to limitations in terms of degree of witness involvement, stress levels and representativeness of participants. Therefore, studies on real-life events are much needed. This archival study examined eyewitness reports from a real-life, extremely stressful event; the sinking of the passenger ferry Estonia in 1994. The ferry was on the way to Sweden from Estonia carrying 989 persons when the bow visor broke off, allowing water to rapidly fill the ship, and an irrevocable list occurred. The accident was sudden and the sinking fast, leaving passengers and crew only twenty minutes to evacuate. Most remained trapped inside, and only 137 persons survived. We analyzed the statements provided during the immediate investigation of the accident, focusing on what survivors from this highly traumatic event reported about their experiences from the sinking ship. We identified common themes in the reports, and where possible, checked the accuracy. Data analyses are ongoing, but preliminary results suggest that there were some themes that most survivors reported about; e.g., 96% of the survivors reported about the heavy list. There were also noticeable differences between information from different senses; while most survivors talked about the lighting conditions on the ship, fewer reported hearing the emergency signals that were broadcast. Also, some aspects were very rarely reported, even though they were most likely present/registered (e.g., odours). For salient aspects like the direction of the list, most reports were accurate, while time estimations were less accurate. However, due to the chaotic nature of the accident, accuracy could not always be established. A few survivors made false reports, for example, six persons stated that they heard “Mayday” being announced through the speakers, two heard “the ship is going under”, and one heard the order “jump overboard”. This analysis of real-life reports can contribute with valuable information about eyewitness reports of traumatic events and the results will be discussed in relation to eyewitness psychology and trauma memory. For example, the traumatic nature of the event may have contributed to a “tunnel memory” -like experience, in which visual information was prioritized while auditory and olfactory information was neglected. Taken together, there were both similarities and diversities in what and how the survivors reported about the event. The majority of diversities were due to omissions or to different ways of perceiving and describing events, and few outright errors (i.e. false memories) were found in this material. Thus, this study indicates that eyewitness reports from such life-threatening event may be reliable, but that reports from several persons should be collected in order to achieve a full picture of the event.

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