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Greek Cruise Ship Evacuation Probed

Apr 9, 2007 | AP

Investigators questioned boatsmen Monday on the Greek island of Santorini to try to determine whether the crew of a cruise ship that sank in the Aegean Sea delayed evacuating more than 1,500 people on board.

Two French tourists are missing and feared drowned following the three-hour rescue effort during which passengers on the Sea Diamond had to scramble onto lifeboats, cross narrow gangways and climb down rope ladders to safety.

At the site of Thursday's accident, meanwhile, crews worked to contain more than 50 tons of oil that has spilled since the 469-foot vessel sank. Plans were made to seal off or remove the remaining 400 tons from the hulk, which has settled on an undersea slope.

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.

Six crew members of the Sea Diamond, including the captain and chief mate, were charged with negligence Saturday but not taken into custody, pending further testimony.

Members of Santorini's boatsmen association played a key part in the April 5 rescue of the passengers mostly American tourists after the ship foundered on the submerged rocks near the island's main port.

The ship sank about 15 hours after striking the well-marked and charted reef in fair weather.

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 the rescue was mishandled.

"The captain is very experienced and he followed all the necessary procedures correctly," Peroulis said Sunday.

The engineer said that after the ship hit the rocks, "the engine room flooded and I was called upstairs to prepare the life boats."

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

Although the spill appeared to pose no immediate threat to the beaches on Santorini, one of Greece's most popular holiday destinations, 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 clean-up 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."

Coast guard divers continued to probe the hull to prepare for a search scheduled for Tuesday by a remote-controlled submersible to look for signs of the two missing passengers.

Frenchman Jean-Christophe Allain, 45, and his 16-year-old daughter, Maud, were believed to be trapped in a flooded cabin in the lower decks. Allain's wife, who survived the accident along with her son, told authorities she had narrowly escaped from her flooded cabin located near the area where the rocks tore a hole in the side of the ship.

A total of 1,156 passengers and 391 crew were on the four-day Aegean Sea cruise, and included groups from Canada, Britain, Spain, France, Australia and the Dominican Republic. The Americans included nearly 100 students from North Carolina.

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