April 9, 2007

Sub to Probe Sunken Ship in Greece


ATHENS, Greece - Greek rescuers will deploy a robot submarine to search for the bodies of two French tourists believed to have drowned when a cruise ship sank off a resort island in the Aegean Sea last week, authorities said Monday.

The ship's captain has blamed Thursday's accident on sea currents that swept the Sea Diamond onto a charted reef off the island of Santorini, tearing a hole in the ship's hull. Nearly 1,600 people - mostly American tourists - were rescued before the vessel sank.

An oceanographic vessel is expected to arrive on the island Tuesday to deploy the unmanned sub in an attempt to locate the missing passengers and the ship's voyage data recorder, the Merchant Marine Ministry said.

Most of the hull is 320 feet below the water's surface inside a sea-filled crater caused by a volcanic eruption 3,500 years ago. But officials fear the ship's position is not yet stable.

Jean-Christophe Allain, 45, and his 16-year-old daughter, Maud, were believed to have been trapped in a flooded lower cabin when the ship sank. The missing man's wife told authorities she narrowly escaped from the cabin with their son.

The rest of the passengers reached safety after scrambling onto lifeboats, crossing narrow gangways and climbing down rope ladders.

The Sea Diamond sunk some 15 hours later, causing an oil slick that experts fought to clean up on Monday. Crews worked to contain more than 50 tons of oil spilled since the 469-foot vessel went down, while plans were made to seal off or remove the remaining 400 tons from the wreckage.

One official involved in the cleanup, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said as many as 100 tons of oil may have leaked out.

Although the spill appeared to pose no immediate threat to Santorini's main beaches, the fate of the remaining oil on board was a concern.

"The oil is continuing to leak from the vessel. ... The situation is being contained in the present conditions," said Vassilis Mamaloukas, who is leading the cleanup operation for private Greek contractor Environmental Protection Engineering SA.

"Our priority is to pump the oil from the source of the leak, because it is difficult to control oil from a leak from such a depth. ... If the weather conditions are not favorable we may lose that control."

Dick Fairbanks, vice president of Titan, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based marine salvage company, said the biggest obstacle to retrieving the trapped oil would be getting divers trained to go to the depth of where the hull is resting.

Once the divers are in place, they would plug any leaks in the containers' vents or from holes punctured during the ship's grounding. Next they would attach pumps to the container to bring the oil up to the surface.

The process is expensive and some companies choose not to salvage sunken oil, Fairbanks said, although he thought the Greek government might force the company to retrieve the oil and possibly to remove the entire wreck.

Also Monday, investigators questioned island boatsmen over allegations the crew delayed evacuating the passengers. Six crew members of the Greek-flagged ship, including the captain and chief mate, have been charged with negligence.

The head of the Santorini boatsmen's association, Gerasimos Kanakaris, said he tried for 15-20 minutes to contact the captain for instructions. "He did not respond. ... He responded much later," Kanakaris said. "But the evacuation was orderly. The crew used everything at their disposal."

Rescuers have repeatedly cited delays in their ability to contact the crew of the ship, which is operated by Louis Cruise Lines, part of a Cyprus-based tourism group. Many passengers also complained of being poorly informed by the crew.

Sea Diamond engineer Stelios Peroulis denied claims the rescue was mishandled.

"People have said that the crew did not help the passengers properly - that is not true," he told Alter television "There were crew members who risked there lives to get the passengers out."

Asked why the ship had drawn so close to shore, he said: "All the passengers on these kind of ships want to take photographs of the place they are visiting ... this is what all ships do."

A total of 1,156 passengers and 391 crew were traveling on the four-day Aegean Sea cruise, and included groups from Canada, Britain, Spain, France, Australia and the Dominican Republic.


Associated Press writers Derek Gatopoulos in Athens and Sarah DiLorenzo in New York contributed to this report.