Officials probe ferry sinking in Greece

Posted: Thursday, September 28, 2000

PAROS, Greece - As investigators sought to unravel why a ferry sank and killed at least 66 people, questions were raised today about the age and safety of the coastal fleet that carries tourists to Greece's holiday islands.

The ferry's captain and three crew members were charged with murder today in the sinking.

Investigators focused on reports that the vessel, loaded with more than 500 passengers, was on automatic pilot minutes before it struck the rock, bolstering accounts by survivors that crew members were watching a soccer match on television when the ship sank.

Sailors' unions, meanwhile, led calls for an investigation into whether the 34-year-old Express Samina was seaworthy when it went down.

"If you check all the ferries, I imagine that only one or two are above standard. If you report a problem you're in danger of losing your job," said Yannis Manousoyannakis, leader of the Greek Seamens Union.

Earlier, the union said the sunken ferry was "problematic, overaged with worn-out sheet metal," while the Greek Merchant Marine Mechanics Union described it as a "rusting hulk."

According to the coast guard, the ship was inspected this month and found seaworthy.

In Greece, ferries must be decommissioned after 35 years and the Express Samina was to be withdrawn next year.

A Greek member of the European Parliament, Alekos Alavanos, said Greece should adopt the European Union's more stringent regulations and decommission ships after 27 years of service.

There are about 18 ships over 29 years of age in Greece's coastal fleet of about 130 ferries, many of them on the busiest tourist routes.

Survivors, meanwhile, struggled to cope. Many of the 108 foreign survivors were stranded without belongings and travel papers, most wearing clothes donated by islanders.

"Most people experience trauma after 24 hours... They go back to their hotels. They sleep and then they come back to the hospital and they break down," said Martien Krouwel, a Dutch nurse who has lived on Paros for 12 years.

The ship left the Athens' port of Piraeus on Tuesday afternoon and headed for Paros, the first of six stops on the way to the Lipsis islands near the Turkish coast. At about 10 p.m., the 345-foot, 4,407-ton ferry rammed into the Portes islets, two rocky outcroppings listed on navigation charts and lit with a beacon visible for seven miles.

Efforts by navy divers and rescue crews to find at least eight missing people were hampered by a fierce gale that stopped all boat traffic to and from Paros. Rescuers said there could be up to 14 missing.

Survivors have accused the crew of panicking and failing to organize the evacuation of the ship.

Many attributed their rescue to the proximity of the shore, and a small fleet of fishing boats that sped to the sinking vessel.

"It is inconceivable that lives were lost this way," said government spokesman Tilemahos Hitiris.

The ship's captain, Vassilis Yannakis, his deputy, Anastasios Psychoyos, and two crewmen were charged with five felonies, regional prosecutor Dimitrios Dadinopoulos said. A fifth crew member was not charged.

The prosecutor said the charges included multiple counts of homicide with possible malice, causing serious bodily injuries with possible malice, violating maritime regulations, violating international regulations on avoiding an accident and sinking a ship.

Foreign survivors were from Australia, Austria, Albania, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Ukraine and the United States.

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