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Captain, 4 Crew Members Held in Ferry's Sinking

Greece: At least 62 people drown after ship hits islet. Staffers were reportedly watching a TV soccer match.

September 28, 2000|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROME — Greek authorities accused a sea captain and four crewmen of criminal negligence Wednesday in the drowning deaths of at least 62 people after their ferry struck a well-marked rocky islet in the Aegean Sea, reportedly as most of the crew watched a televised soccer match.

After 24 hours of frantic rescue efforts hampered by gale-force winds, Greece's Merchant Marine Ministry reported that 448 people thrown into rough, darkened waters late Tuesday had been saved.

Four Americans were among those rescued, but it was unknown if any Americans died. Passengers aboard the triple-decker ferry, the Express Samina, included Greek commuters and late-season tourists from at least eight countries.

The death toll, based on a list of 63 crewmen and the advance sale of 447 tickets, was expected to rise. Authorities said 15 to 20 more passengers may have been aboard--children not required to hold tickets or adults who paid after getting on.

Ferries are a way of life for many of the 460,000 people who live year-round on Greece's Aegean islands and as many as a million more who go there during the long summer season now ending. Hundreds of ferries--crowded with merchants delivering retail goods to the islands and islanders going home from jobs on the mainland or on other islands--ply the islands daily.

The Express Samina had left Athens' port of Piraeus on Tuesday afternoon and headed southeast for the holiday island of Paros, the first of six overnight stops en route to Lipsoi island near the Turkish coast.

Heading into Paros harbor about 10 p.m., the 345-foot, 4,407-ton ferry slammed into Portes islet, an outcropping that the Greek coast guard says is marked on maritime charts and carries a light visible for miles.

"You have to be blind not to see it," coast guard chief Andreas Sirigos told reporters.

The Express Samina sank within 45 minutes.

Greek news media quoted some survivors as saying they had scrambled to the decks and were thrown into the swelling sea as power went off and the ferry listed abruptly.

"The ship's left side was touching the water, and it turned into a slide," Effi Iiou, a Greek woman, told Athens-based Flash radio. "One after another, we fell into the sea."

Other survivors described a disorderly evacuation into lifeboats, with the crew ignoring the custom of helping women and children first. Some passengers managed to clutch life vests before hitting the water, while others clung to floating debris or the rocky shore throughout a terrifying night.

Fishing boats rushed to help, followed by Greek rescue vessels and passing British warships. British navy helicopters rescued 12 people and took them aboard the aircraft carrier Invincible for treatment of hypothermia, shock, bruises and cuts.

The ferry's owner, Minoan Flying Dolphins, a subsidiary of Minoan Lines, rejected claims by a seamen's union that the 34-year-old vessel was unseaworthy.

The accident occurred during a nationally televised European Champions League match between a Greek and a German soccer club. Greek media said the coast guard was investigating reports that most of the crew was glued to TV sets aboard the ferry.

"Everyone was watching the game," German survivor Christa Liczbinksi, 37, told Associated Press on Paros. "I joked with my husband, 'Who's driving the ship?' "

A preliminary inquiry indicated that Vassilis Yannakis, the captain, was not on his bridge, Greek media reported. He and four crewmen were arrested on Paros.

Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis promised a full investigation.

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