Divers Search For 2 Missing After Greek Cruise Ship Sinks

Friday, April 6th 2007, 10:36 am
By: News On 6

ATHENS, Greece (AP) _ 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. Navy divers searched around the sunken wreckage for a Frenchman and his daughter _ the only two passengers still missing.

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. Those on board were mostly American, and also included groups from Canada and Spain.

Authorities said two French passengers _ Jean-Christophe Allain, 45, and his 16-year-old daughter, Maud _ had still not been accounted for. 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.''

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.

The ship's operator, Louis Cruise Lines, insisted the 21-year-old vessel had been well maintained.

``The vessel maintained the highest level of safety standards and was equipped with the latest navigation systems,'' spokesman Giorgos Stathopoulos said.

Investigators were questioning the captain and three officers about Thursday's crash into rocks, which are marked with warning lights and clearly indicated on navigation charts.

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 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.''

Lizbeth Mata, 15, was on the Aegean Sea cruise with her family and said some crew members left before the passengers.

She waited at Athens Airport with her parents and brother, hoping to board a flight to Paris.

``The crew members were more scared that we were,'' said Mata, still wrapped in a blue blanket given to her after the rescue.

``They were yelling and screaming _ didn't know what to do.''

The 469-foot Sea Diamond was built in 1986 and refurbished in 1999.