HELSINKI, Finland — Hundreds of people were feared drowned early today when an Estonian passenger ferry with 867 people aboard sank off southwest Finland.
"The number of victims will be many hundreds, I fear," Capt. Lt. Mikko Montonen at the Turku Sea Rescue Center told Reuters news service by telephone.
One survivor said the ship listed and sank within five minutes. The sinking occurred sometime after midnight.
Stormy seas and winds topping 56 m.p.h. were preventing rescue operations near the site of the disaster, about 23 miles from the Finnish island of Uto off the country's southwestern coast.
Montonen said about 30 people had been rescued from where the 15,566-ton passenger ferry Estonia sank while on its way from Tallinn, the Estonian capital, to Stockholm. There were 679 passengers and 188 crew members on board.
Asked to estimate how many could still be rescued, Montonen said: "At most, some tens of percent. . . . The conditions are terrible."
He said there were strong winds in the area, adding, "There are many lifeboats that have turned over, and people are hanging on to them."
Finnish radio said the weather conditions were worsening. Several passenger ferries and helicopters were helping rescue operations, and several more helicopters and planes were on their way from Sweden.
Montonen said the rescue was concentrated on finding people in the sea.
The Swedish passenger ferry Mariella was one of the first vessels to arrive and was taking survivors on board.
Niklas Granrot, a Mariella crewman, said, "We have got our lifeboats in the water, and we're picking people up as fast as we can."
He said there was no trace of the Estonia, which was built in 1980.
"It's so dark out there, all we can see are a few lights from lifeboats and emergency flares," he said.
Per-Erik Cederqvist, identified by Finnish radio as head of information on the Mariella, said his vessel had picked up 12 people from the Estonia.
"I do not believe that very many more alive will be found in that sea," he said. "The conditions are difficult. The sea is rough."
One survivor had told him that the Estonia sank very quickly, he said. "He said that all this happened within about five minutes. The ship listed over, then sank."
The Estonia had sent a distress signal that it was listing seriously and had a power blackout.
The cause of the accident was unknown. Cederqvist speculated that the Estonia's heavy cargo, including cars and other vehicles, might have shifted in the rough seas, causing it to capsize.
Five large passenger ferries and several merchant ships rushed to the scene to start rescue operations.
The Swedish news agency TT said the Estonia had been expected in the Swedish capital at 10 a.m. today. The ship was partly owned by the Estonian state and partly owned by Swedish ship owner Nordstrom & Thulin.