The Disaster
 
  Ferry Disaster off Paros

 

At 22.20 on Tuesday 26 September 2000, the Express Samina hit a rocky islet and sank with the loss of 82 of the 550 passengers, 2 km off the coast of Paros. Her captain and mate have been arrested and charged with manslaughter amid allegations that at the time of the collision the crew had left the bridge to watch the replay on one of the ship's TVs of a goal in an important local soccer match.

 

After the collision the ship lurched violently to port and the power supply failed. All on board were then left in the dark, scrambling for life jackets and life-rafts, as the ship began sinking by the bow. The Express Samina took 45 minutes to sink. During this period most of the crew seem to have left the passengers to their own devices; survivor accounts suggest that they provided little in the way of help in either finding life-jackets or launching the boats. Several of the boats were reported by survivors as being defective, and many were reduced to clinging to nearby rocky islets until they could be picked up by local fishing boats that - braving the rough seas - rushed from Parikia, or helicopters from several British Royal Navy ships that were on exercises in the area.

 

  The Disaster Scene

 

The ill-fated Express Samina hit the Portes Islets (translated as 'the Gates') which mark the northern boundary of a number of low islets that run north from the island of Antiparos. Some 25m high, the taller of the two is topped with a navigation light that is visible for 12 km. Thanks to this easily spotted landmark (and the fact that the Parikia harbour on Paros is hidden away behind a headland in a deep bay) the Gates are a natural navigation target for boats entering and leaving Paros.

All this has made the Express Samina disaster so difficult to comprehend – though as you can see from the photos below, ferries did steam uncomfortably close to these rocks. The most plausible explanation (though one hastens to add that this must remain conjecture) is that the bridge crew set the automatic steering on the ferry, targeting the Gates, with the intention of later assuming manual control as the vessel closed in on Paros. For some reason this appears not to have happened and the Express Samina was left to steam at full speed into the Gates.

 
The C/F Express Apollon turning at the Gates after leaving Paros.

 

These photos, taken by the author six weeks before the sinking, show how ferries regularly sailed close to the Gates, using them as a turning point on the approaches to Paros (nowadays no ferry ventures near them!).

The C/F Dimitroula steaming at speed up to the Gates, with the departing C/F Express Apollon and arriving C/F Express Santorini behind.
 
 
  The Ferry

 

The Express Samina was one of the oldest ferries in the Greek domestic fleet. Built in 1966, she was originally the French SNCM ferry Corse. She operated in Greece from the mid 1980s. Until early in 2000 she sailed as the Golden Vergina. Sold to Minoan Flying Dolphins/Hellas Ferries for the very low figure of US$ 2,250,000 she was renamed Express Samina and her passenger facilities were refurbished.

 

For several years Greek Island Hopping warned readers against using this ferry: the 2000 edition described her thus:

'Now reaching the 35-year Greek ferry age limit and due for replacement, this dreadful boat is arguably the worst Greek ferry afloat. A large grime-bucket with a reputation for running late, the Golden Vergina is the sister of the equally notorious Naias II .... For most of the time she has shuddered along: not because of an excess of engine vibration, but rather with the collective disgust of her passengers thanks to the conditions on board: she is definitely a boat to be avoided.'

The Express Samina was almost identical in build to a second ex SNCM boat still in the Greek fleet. This vessel was also built in 1966 as the Comte De Nice and has operated alongside the Express Samina for many years as the Naias II. Like the Express Samina she was bought in late 1999 by Minoan Flying Dolphins/Hellas Ferries and has since been renamed Express Naias. Given that the boats are so similar, it is worth noting that in 1998 a survey of 30 European ferries appeared in the German ADAC Motorwelt magazine. It ranked the Naias II last and listed faults included:

'no automatic fire doors: engines of lifeboats broken: flammable liquids on the car deck'.

The EU Commission funded a follow-up inspection six months later to check that the problems had been rectified (they had been). It isn't known if any checks were made on the rest of the Greek fleet - including this ship's identical sister - the Express Samina. It is indicative of the inspection standards in Greece that any ferry could be operated in this state in the first place. It is not known what steps - if any - their new owners took to improve the safety standards on either boat.

 

 
The Aftermath - Notable Events
 
  Allegations of Evidence Tampering

 

Among the more interesting allegations that swirled around in the aftermath of the disaster were those that suggested that divers had been spotted interfering with the wreck ahead of the official search and enquiry teams. These claims - although strong enough to prompt calls to have the wreck refloated so that it can be examined at the surface at Paros - have been denied, but given the subsequent resignation of the official enquiry team chief after death threats (see below), anything is possible. What is certain is that officially sanctioned divers shot video footage of key locations of the vessel, including its life-saving mechanisms and the engine room.

 

  Illegal Sailing prior to Sinking

 

Once the Express Samina went down and questions about safe she was came to the surface, it didn't take long for a clear breach of law to emerge. Although this was not an issue relevant to the sinking, it was revealed that the ship had resumed service after a six month break (during which she had her passenger facilities refitted) and set off on her first voyage without obtaining the necessary seaworthiness certification. She only received the appropriate papers on her return, and without apparent checks being made. Piraeus public prosecutor Grigoris Peponis, who conducted a month-long investigation into the seaworthiness of the Express Samina, called for an investigation into the possible misconduct of politicians in allowing this sort of practice.

Meantime, various members of the coastguard, a former director of the merchant marine inspectorate, and the operators of Minoan Flying Dolphins (MFD) have been charged with disrupting the safety of shipping transport and possibly endangering lives. The ship's operator has also been charged with instigating a crime (that of giving port authorities no alternative but to allow the ship to sail uncertified). Minoan Flying Dolphins are alleged to have done this by loading the ferry with passengers in order to pressure the coastguard into letting the vessel depart. The ship was permitted to sail only after the captain and the superintendent mechanic signed statements taking responsibility for the passengers' safety.

 

  Suicide of Company Manager

 

On November the 29th the manager of Minoan Flying Dolphins, charged with criminal negligence after the disaster committed suicide by jumping out of his sixth floor office window in Piraeus. He had been the focus of much public anger, and was being regularly pilloried in the Greek press,The coroners' report revealed that he had consumed a significant amount of alcohol and antidepressants. He left no explanatory note, but reports suggest that he had just received a report outlining the compensation claims filed by relatives of victims and survivors. There were also reports of a "mysterious" telephone call a few minutes before the suicide.

The local press had a field day with the story, with the worst papers printing pictures of his office window and the pavement below. Comment was equally unsympathetic, with one paper noting that Minoan Flying Dolphin's shares had fallen that day by the maximum allowed by the Athenian stockmarket -12 per cent - or 2 per cent for each floor Mr Sfinias fell. Another noted that this self-made star of the company who had done so much to build it up 'had six floors to drop because over the years he had built every one of them'.

 

  Death Threats

 

On the 6th of December more allegations of shady practices behind the scenes emerged when the expert investigator heading the inquiry into the disaster - Ilias Stephanakos - handed in his resignation saying he had received death threats and other warnings to quit the Express Samina probe. He is quoted as saying ''I believe that I have disturbed some people very much," His resignation came a few hours after the lawyer defending the ship's first mate claimed that Mr. Stephanakos was psychologically unfit to conduct the enquiry, having suffered from severe depression after an accident in a fire eight years previously. Meantime, the enquiry report has yet to be published, but leaks suggest that it details incriminating evidence against the captain and first mate, the merchant marine ministry, the coastguard, and vessel's owner Minoan Flying Dolphins. It is said to conclude that the Express Samina was unseaworthy as it suffered mechanical and electrical problems. The report is also said to catalogue serious safety violations by a crew allegedly not trained to conduct emergency evacuation and rescue procedures.

A second individual expressing safety fears is one of Minoan Flying Dolphins' superintendent engineers - Antonis Sorokos. After claiming that the Express Samina had serious mechanical problems with its systems for controlling the vessel's speed and direction, he is reported to have visited the Piraeus public prosecutor's office to apply for a gun permit, citing fears for his own and his family's safety. He is also reported to have taken out a one billion drachma life insurance policy.

In a further twist to this aspect of the Express Samina story, GA Ferries president George Agoudimos is also claimed to have requested police protection due to fears for his safety. In his case the cause would appear to be autobiography that allegedly contains incriminating evidence against politicians and other powerful figures in the Greek establishment. Agoudimos reportedly warned that if anything happens to him or his family, his autobiography will be made public.

 

  Trial of Captain delayed

 

Serious irritation exists in Greece over the projected delay in the trial of the captain of the Express Samina. The latest estimates are that the trial won't take place for another three years - i.e. early 2004. Meantime, the captain - Vassilis Yiannakis - is being held in a prison on Chios, while making odd court appearances. Along with the ship's mate - Anastasios Psychogios - he faces charges of multiple counts of reckless manslaughter along with lesser charges of deserting a ship, violating international law concerning ship collisions and causing an accident (he claims that he was asleep at the time the Express Samina struck).

His latest appearance was before the Supreme Council for Nautical Accidents. Asked if the passengers on board the ferry had been shown the emergency procedures, Yiannakis said that he had repeatedly requested demonstration videos from Minoan Flying Dolphins but had not received any - a claim which long-standing island-hoppers will greet with much derisive mirth. Local opinion isn't likely to be any more sympathetic, as Vassilis Yiannakis has been revealed to have been the captain of the ill-fated ferry Nereus when she ran around and sank near Iraklion a few years ago, and also in charge of the Express Samina when she was involved in a collision with another ferry.

 

  Compensation Claims Threaten Company

 

The value of Minoan Flying Dolphins shares seems to head ever downwards as the compensation claims start to come in. Relatives of only some of the 82 victims and 500-odd survivors are already variously said to be demanding some 266 billion drachmas' or $32.5 million in compensation. The company's assets are reckoned to only amount to around 50 billion drachmas.

On December the 19th a court awarded more than $537,000 to the relatives of two passengers who died. When the final sums are added up, Greece's largest ferry operation looks as if it is going to be very seriously compromised by the Express Samina disaster. If Minoan Flying Dolphins survive at all, then the company's capacity to invest in new boats is going to be severely compromised. This could be particularly damaging as MFD's subsidiary lines - Hellas Ferries and Saronikos Lines - are the operators of many of the older boats threatened with redundancy by the mooted changes in Greece's ferry regulations.

 

© 2005 Frewin Poffley / Thingumajigolo Productions