Navy divers are searching the sunken wreckage of a cruise ship for the bodies of a Frenchman and his daughter, missing after the vessel foundered on a volcanic reef in Greece.
They are the only two people missing after what passengers described as a chaotic evacuation in the Aegean Sea.
Nearly 1,600 people were rescued from the sinking ship in a three-hour operation, but some passengers complained of an insufficient supply of life vests, little guidance from crew members and being forced into a steep climb down rope-ladders to safety.
“The crew members were more scared than we were,” said Lizbeth Mata, a 15-year-old from the Dominican Republic who was on holiday with her parents and brother. Mata said some crew members left before the passengers, “yelling and screaming – didn’t know what to do”.
The 469ft Sea Diamond struck rocks on Thursday in the sea-filled crater formed by a massive volcanic eruption 3,500 years ago off the island of Santorini.
Tourists gathered on clifftops to watch the rescue effort at the reef, which is marked with warning lights and clearly indicated on navigation charts. The ship sank about a quarter of a mile off the island’s coast, in waters of uneven depth, a few minutes before it was due to dock.
The ship’s operator, Louis Cruise Lines, said the Frenchman and his teenage daughter were the only passengers missing and 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.
The captain and five officers were summoned to appear at a public prosecutor’s office on the island of Naxos to make a formal declaration of their version of events, which is standard procedure. No charges have yet been filed.
State-run NET television said investigators believed most of the damage to the ship’s hull was done before the captain issued the distress signal, when he was trying to manoeuvre the ship away from the rocks.
Earlier, private vessels siphoned oil from the stricken ship in order to prevent further fuel leakage after a small oil slick appeared.
“The evacuation was orderly and successful. Every decision was taken in a way that would not endanger lives,” merchant marine minister Manolis Kefaloyannis said.
The missing French passengers were identified as Jean-Christophe Allain, 45, and his 16-year-old daughter, Maud, from Doue-la-Fontaine in western France.
Minister Fanny Palli Petralia, who spoke with Allain’s wife, said the family’s cabin filled with water when the ship struck the reef.
“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.”
Thursday’s evacuation was the largest Greek rescue operation since the September 2000 Express Samina ferry disaster, which killed 80 people near the holiday island of Paros when the ferry struck rocks and sank.
“We realised 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 tourist who was among the 1,547 passengers and crew rescued.
Passengers on the cruise were mostly American, and also included groups from Canada and Spain, France and the Dominican Republic.
Some of those rescued said they had confused the grinding sound when the ship first hit the rocks with the ship’s dropping anchor. 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.”