Out of a total of 989 passengers and crew on board 138 were rescued alive but one died later in the hospital. The accident claimed 852 lives (501 Swedes, 285 Estonians, 17 Latvians, 10 Finns and 44 people of other nationalities: 1 from Belarus, 1 from Canada, 1 from France, 1 from the Netherlands, 1 from Nigeria, 1 from Ukraine, 1 from United Kingdom, 2 from Morocco, 3 from Lithuania, 5 from Denmark, 6 from Norway, 10 from Germany, 11 from Russia), by drowning and hypothermia, (the water temperature was 10°C–11 °C/50–52 °F). One prominent victim of the sinking was the popular Estonian singer Urmas Alender. 93 bodies were recovered within 33 days of the accident. Victim number 94 was found 18 months later. By the time the rescue helicopters began to arrive, around a third of the people who escaped from the Estonia had died of hypothermia. The survivors of the shipwreck were mostly young, of strong physical composition, and male. Seven people over 55 years of age survived. There were no survivors under age 12. About 750 people were inside the ship when it sank.
The official report blamed the accident on the failure of locks on the bow visor that broke under the strain of the waves. When the visor broke off the ship, it damaged the ramp that covered the opening to the car deck behind the visor. This allowed water into the car deck, which destabilized the ship and began a catastrophic chain of events. (Flooding on the car deck capsized the Herald of Free Enterprise, where the bow doors were left open, and the Princess Victoria, which sank in the same storm which caused the North Sea Flood of 1953. Roll-on/roll-off ferries are particularly vulnerable to capsizing due to the free surface effect if the car deck is even slightly flooded.)