April 6, 2007
Cruise Ship Sinks on Mediterranean Reef
By DEREK GATOPOULOS
ATHENS, Greece - A Greek cruise ship that struck a volcanic reef and forced the evacuation of hundreds of tourists sank on Friday, 15 hours after it began taking on water off the coast of a Mediterranean island. A Frenchman and his daughter were missing, officials said.Passengers on Thursday climbed down rope ladders to coast guard boats below in a three-hour rescue that involved Greece's military, commercial ships and local fishermen from the island of Santorini. Passengers on the cruise were mostly American, and also included groups from Canada and Spain.
Authorities said two French passengers - a 45-year-old man and his 16-year-old daughter - had still not been accounted for, and lists of rescued passengers were being rechecked.
Tourism Minister Fanny Palli Petralia said she had spoken with the missing passenger's wife.
"The lady said her cabin filled with water when the ship struck rocks and that she narrowly escaped," Petralia said. "She was not sure whether her husband and daughter made it out because things happened so suddenly ... in a few seconds. Her other child was up on deck and was evacuated safely."
Those rescued said most people remained calm though there were some tense moments.
The Sea Diamond struck rocks in the sea-filled crater formed by a volcanic eruption 3,500 years ago. Tourists gathered on clifftop towns and villages to watch the rescue.
"We realized there was a serious problem ... We exited our cabin and it was tough to be able to walk out of the ship. A lot of people were very emotional over it, upset, very frightened," said Stephen Johnson, a Canadian passenger.
An Australian passenger, Katie Sumner, said the early stages of the rescue were chaotic.
"We heard a big shudder and then the whole boat started to tilt," Sumner said.
"All of our glasses were sliding everywhere and our warning that the ship was sinking was some of the staff running down the corridor screaming out 'life jackets' and banging on doors, so we got no time to, sort of, get ready or anything, we just left as we were."
The 469-foot Sea Diamond was operated by Louis Cruise Lines, part of a Cyprus-based tourism group. The Merchant Marine Ministry said 1,195 passengers and 391 crew members were on board.
"Whoever is responsible for this will be held accountable in the strictest way," Petralia said. "Greece is a major tourism destination and incidents like this must not be allowed to occur. ... Authorities handled the rescue very well."
Most of the rescued passengers arrived at Athens' main port of Piraeus Friday on a chartered ferry and a Louis cruise ship.
Authorities on Santorini said they were working to contain a small oil spillage from the sunken ship.
The Sea Diamond's captain and three officers were being interviewed Friday by coast guard investigators who flew to Santorini.
More than 300 rescued passengers arrived at Athens' main port of Piraeus early Friday on a chartered ferry, and more were due to arrive later in the day on another Louis cruise ship.
The Sea Diamond was built in 1986 and refurbished in 1999.
Associated Press writer John F.L. Ross and AP television staff contributed to this report.