By LISA ORKIN
PAROS, Greece – A Greek ferry struck a patch of rocks in the Aegean Sea and sank, killing at least 59 of the more than 500 people aboard. Many of the victims panicked and jumped off the boat, rescue officials said.
The ship’s captain and four crew members were arrested after the accident Tuesday night, amid reports at least some of them were watching a soccer match on television at the time. Government officials accused them of criminal negligence, and survivors criticized the shipping company for complete disorganization.
“You have to be blind not to see it,” said Coast Guard chief Andreas Sirigos. “It is inexplicable how the ship collided with a well-known rock that carries a light visible from a distance of seven miles.”
It was unclear how many people were aboard, and how many of them were foreigners. At least 443 people were rescued, including four Americans, authorities said. It was unknown if any Americans had drowned.
There reportedly were also passengers from Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Norway.
Many of the dead were young children, who were not required to be counted on the passenger list. A port official suffered a heart attack and died after hearing news of the sinking, the coast guard said.
The 34-year-old ferry Express Samina was on its daily meandering route through the Aegean Sea with an assortment of passengers – foreign tourists heading for sun-soaked holiday isles, residents heading home, army conscripts returning to military bases from leaves.
The ship left Athens’ port of Piraeus at 5 p.m. Tuesday and headed for Paros, the first of six stops that would eventually bring it to the tiny Lipsis islands near the Turkish coast.
About 10 p.m., the 345-foot, 4,407-ton ferry rammed into the Portes islet, a large rocky outcrop near Paros harbor that is marked on maritime charts and has a navigation light, Sirigos said.
Christine Shannon, 30, an artist and teacher from Seattle, was one of the survivors.
“We were on the main deck,” Shannon said. “I saw it hit. It was well above the top deck. … It was like the movie Titanic.”
A small flotilla of fishing boats rushed to the scene, followed by dozens of other vessels and British Navy helicopters. But rescue efforts were hampered by gale-force winds.
British helicopters rescued at least 12 people, including two Britons, clinging to rocks in the swelling seas and took them aboard the HMS Invincible for treatment. They were suffering from cold, shock and minor cuts and bruises.
The causes of the collision were not immediately known, but Justice Minister Michalis Stathopoulos said the accident was caused by “criminal negligence.” Results of a preliminary investigation indicated that captain Vassilis Yannakis was not on his bridge.
Yannakis, his deputy Anastasios Psychoyos, and three crew members were being questioned. A supreme court prosecutor also summoned two senior officials from the ferry’s operator, Minoan Flying Dolphins, to give testimony.
There were Greek media reports that coast guard officers were also investigating allegations that most of the crew was watching a European Champions League soccer match when the ferry crashed.
“Everyone was watching the game. … I joked with my husband, ‘Whose driving the ship?’ ” said German survivor Christa Liczbinski, 37, from Seeheim near Frankfurt.
Although a crew member interviewed by telephone said there was an orderly evacuation, Liczbinski and other passengers reported a strong collision and then panic. Liczbinski, who is pregnant, and her 33-year-old husband Mark – a Lufthansa pilot – said the evacuation was disorganized. They were traveling with their son Mark, 4.
Some survivors accused the crew of ignoring the custom of evacuating women and children first.
“Nobody told us to do anything. They were just yelling and pushing. We were handing out life vests. People were starting to jump out of the boat without vests. I thought we were going to die the whole time. We got on a boat and they let it down. There was a hole in it,” said Heidi Hart, a 26-year-old accountant from Seattle.
Welsh company director Emil Popper said there was “total chaos” as people leaped off the sinking ship.
“Basically it was chaos and mayhem at the back of the ship. There was no organization, total chaos,” said the 34-year-old from Cardiff. “People were jumping off the ship there was absolutely no prioritization. There was nothing left of the boat on the side we were holding on to and it was a question of clawing our way down the ship.”
Although the ferry’s owner said 447 tickets were sold and 63 crew members were aboard, the exact number of people aboard was unknown. Some people boarded from another boat and other bought tickets on board.
Sirigos said 443 people from the ship had been accounted for at the island’s health center. He appealed for any survivors staying at hotels or private homes to register at the health center.
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