Forty minutes that changed everything
Ten years ago in Athens harbour the cruise liner `Jupiter' went down with 400 British schoolchildren on board. Miraculously, most survived - but the trauma lived on. Here, for the first time, they open their diaries of that fateful day. By Nick Tester
Saturday 10 October 1998
n 21 ctober 1988, 391 British schoolchildren and 84 adults were excitedly clambering up the gangplank on to the cruise liner Jupiter. At last, after 18 months of planning, they were ready to embark on a week-long education trip of a lifetime. Then, just 15 minutes after leaving the Greek port of Piraeus, an errant freight ship delivered a massive blow to the Jupiter, ripping open a hole 4.5m by 12m wide in its port side. Water gushed in and the stricken Jupiter began to keel.
Within 40 minutes, at 6.55pm, the ship had sunk, stern first, in 270ft of Mediterranean sea. Though captured in media headlines across the world, the sinking was soon forgotten, mainly because - miraculously - it claimed just four lives (a pupil and a teacher from Birmingham, and two members of the 110-strong Greek crew), with another 70 or so sustaining injuries. Yet, for the majority of the survivors, the crisis refused to be erased from their minds. Indeed, their ordeal had only just begun.
When they arrived home many of the 13- to 15-year-old children were encouraged to write about their experiences. More cathartic than morbid, the exercise was intended to be part of their rehabilitation and some of the observations surfaced two or three years later as coursework essays for their GCSE English exams. But it is only now that the vivid accounts can be made public following the conclusion of legal actions. Compensation cases - both individual and collective - dragged on for almost eight years. Criminal charges in Greece against the captain of the ship that had fatally struck the Jupiter also contributed to the delay.
The book, Jupiter's Children, is a dramatic inventory of how the children faced the prospect of being drowned, electrocuted or crushed to death; how they somehow managed to cling on to slippery railings above a sheer drop of deck or oily sea. It is also a testament to their bravery and instinct for survival. Naturally, in such perilous situations, the authors reveal a concern for their own well-being. But, intriguingly, they also show a disproportionate obsession with mundane material possessions, such as socks, trainers, T-shirts. The accounts also reveal a deeper anxiety for others caught in the desperate plight.
The book has been compiled by Mary Campion, a retired teacher. "Not many people survive a shipwreck and very few children have written their own accounts," she explains. "Writing about their experience would help to make logical sense of an abnormal happening."
Campion was herself on board the doomed ship as a teacher from Cator Park School in south London - one of the 15 schools taking part in the ill-fated cruise. "Holding on to the rail," she writes, "I sank with the ship; warm water covered my ankles, then it was up to my waist and level with the rail. I swam off at speed. Breathless, glancing behind me, the Jupiter was glimpsed. A pointed arch with reddish overtones hung against the sky. It seemed to wait, hesitating, before sliding below the sea."
Looking back, 10 years later, she has few doubts about why so many survived. "Crushing, fighting and trampling in terror did not take place. Schoolchildren are accustomed to obeying orders and those aboard did so without argument. "They are used to being in a crowd, being controlled by adults, without questioning at the time, and to moving frequently in a school day in large numbers without pushing, jostling or hurting each other. Whether hundreds of adults have been so amenable in other marine disasters is worth considering."
Many of the teenagers, she says, were able to help calm and console others, particularly the youngest children. Not all these were from their own schools and most were unknown to each other by name. Along with the teachers, trained to take control and cope with crises, the teenagers helped to contain the panic that was threatening to rise as quickly as the Jupiter was sinking. Here is a chronological account of the disaster in the words of some of the teenage survivors.
Chloe Warrington aged 13
"I was excited, scared even. To bed with my mind churning over in a muddled state about next day. I was worried that something might happen. I was going on a Mediterranean cruise! We approached the liner, Jupiter. It loomed above us. It appeared huge and overpowering, a white mass in a sea of blue."
Keryl Nisbett aged 14
"6pm: Chloe Warrington, Maria Sevier and I were just coming to the finishing stages of unpacking. We were all full of beans, because we were on the cruise of a lifetime to see the Pyramids, ride a camel, float in the Dead Sea, see where God's Son died for us all, eat the famous Turkish delight, meet Turkish boys, see Athens and the islands of Greece."
Carole Gardner aged 14
"Laura had told us all about her dream that the cruise ship was going to sink and she would have to climb over my trapped body. Emma had called Laura a doom-bug and told her to stop being so morbid.
"The dining room was almost fairy-like. It was very bright, with many different lamps around the walls. There were lots of neatly laid tables, each with its own flower arrangement. Some of the tables were already filled with happy children eating their suppers. Suddenly, everyone was thrown across the room and there was the loudest bang I had ever heard, and it sent plates crashing to the floor. I felt sick and all I knew was that I wanted to cry. My legs felt like jelly and I found it difficult to stand.
"`Quickly, run, run!' the Greek waiter shouted. `Upstairs, upstairs.' I walked. I looked to my right and there was a waiter standing by an overturned table, picking up the plates that had fallen to the floor and, behind him, in the side of the Jupiter, was a hole, a very large hole, with the front of a large black boat sticking in. Around the boat, water was gushing in."
Chloe "The scene was frozen like a still photograph. No one moved. Then everyone was up and in action. The cries of waiters telling us to sit and be calm were ignored. The next 10 minutes are lost in my mind. Jumbled with horrific, frightening scenes. My subconscious has shut out these memories, rejecting them as too upsetting. Now, I wonder to myself, when did I lose the memory? I do not even remember ever remembering. I feel I need the memory to complete the jigsaw of the disaster, to lay it to rest in its own watery grave.
"Half-crying, half-laughing, we stood or sat nervously waiting. Inside I felt panic. A choke of screams in my throat emerged as silence. The deck was now slanting. The wooden lines of the deck are embedded in my memory, as that is when I began to realise that what was happening was real. I felt not terror, not shock, just confusion; disbelief about what was happening. Questions floated in my mind to which I could find no answers."
Laura Gill aged 14
"I hadn't realised the ship was tilting, but I was finding sitting on my leaning chair difficult. The boat gave a violent shudder and tilted further. The furniture began to move across the room. I turned round and saw water through a window. I slid towards the sunken side of the lounge."
Carole "People were screaming and crying for help, many were sliding, as you would on a slide, while their friends tried to keep them up. I crouched down, the noise of people screaming was deafening. Suddenly the lights flickered and went out, everything was dark and people all around began to really panic. After a minute or two, my eyes adjusted to the darkness and I looked over the wall at the drop that lay behind me.
"I noticed a boy beside me shouting desperately. `Smash the windows, get out of here, we're going to die, smash the windows!' He was a small boy with short curly hair and an Iron Maiden T-shirt. `Shut up!' I screamed. `Shut up!' `What are we going to do? How are we going to get out?' he screamed. `We're going to die!' `Look,' I screamed back. `If you don't shut up, no one will be able to tell us what to do! Do as you would in a fire alarm!' This shut him up and he started to calm down.
"Then other people started sliding down into the chairs ... I felt the air being squeezed out of me by bodies on top of me. To my left was an elderly woman sitting above the chairs. She looked dazed, with blood pouring from her right temple. I wanted so much to help her, but I could not move.
"I took off my socks and threw them to the exit door, which was submerged in water, I thought I could come back for them later, after we had been rescued."
Chloe "Above me what had been the floor of the deck now looked like a hill. It was either rest there, be trapped and submerged under water or take action and jump into the sea. I took off my trainers in desperation, remembering a book by CS Lewis, in which children took their shoes off when they fell into the sea. I clambered up on to the side, then saw two boys jumping with shoes on. I decided to put my trainers back on and then decided that was stupid.
"This was the moment of decision, to stay there dry and drown later or to jump off into the pitch black sea, spattered with oil. This moment of hesitation allowed thoughts about my possessions into my mind. What would I wear if the clothes I was wearing got wet? For a bizarre moment, I wanted to run back to my cabin to get my precious things.
"I plunged into the sea some seven feet below me. The fall seemed a mile long and as I was submerged into the darkness, I remember the pressure of the water against my body. It was difficult to keep my head above water, my jeans felt like lead. I could not see my friends. I just swam aimlessly in the dark."
Carole "I seemed to be almost floating as my feet found it difficult to touch the floor. I was so afraid that I forgot to breathe and my mouth became so dry that my tongue stuck in the roof of my mouth. We had to climb around the pulley that held the lifeboats that swung useless over our heads. We joked and laughed with people we met, including a boy called Luke, who was helping people to climb over the pulley. Laura was concerned about his untidy shirt, even though the boat was sinking. I asked him to tuck his shirt in. He did.
"The bar next to us became covered in water and the electric cable from it sparked and flew around, like a mad snake. I felt sure I was going to be electrocuted.
"As I dived, I felt first my fingertips get wet, then the rest of my body. I swam towards a tug boat. Behind it was a lifebelt attached to a long rope. Three or four children were hanging on to the belt. As I moved to join them, the tug moved away like a speed boat, leaving a white trail behind it. I felt the dread of being left.
"I turned and swam back towards the Jupiter and as I did I saw the worst of my nightmares come true. The Jupiter, which contained almost every piece of clothing that I possessed, had turned on its nose and was slowly sinking beneath the waves. It was like watching a movie and I could not take it in.
"I was so close I could feel bits of the ship beneath trying to pull me down. As the Jupiter disappeared, waves about 10ft high started crashing over me. The waves brought pieces of wood, inches thick, which hit me. I grabbed a small piece to help me stay afloat and swam towards the tug boats. Three men pulled me up and threw me on the deck. I felt like a landed fish.
"There was a small boy on our tug with a jumper on, no jeans but green- and-white-striped boxer shorts. We were making fun that he always went out like this."
Laura "Bubbles came up from the sunken ship. The sea sucked me down. I struggled up. Nearby was an Indian girl, splashing her arms, a non-swimmer. I pulled her from the undercurrent. In between mouthfuls of oily water I reassured her. Whilst holding her, 7ft waves came. We both went under, very deep, and were separated. I tried to find her under the water, but couldn't open my eyes in the oil.
"I held on to a pole until waves pushed me to a huge polystyrene block. My fingers sank into it. Using my legs, I steered towards the nearest tug and was hauled aboard.
A suntanned boy came down. I asked him if he'd been on a holiday. It was Rick Elmes, covered in even more oil than I was."
Today many of the survivors are still struggling to understand what happened to them, to come to terms with the lingering mental and physical effects of surviving a major calamity. Most were unprepared for what followed the experience: waves of utter exhaustion, lack of sleep, difficulty concentrating, grief and guilt - even guilt for getting off the Jupiter. "We were completely unaware of the psychological impact of a disaster," Mary Campion recalls. "We could never have guessed that of the hundreds of people on the Jupiter, some would be unable to work, suffer depression, develop phobias or even consider suicide. Nor guessed that some people would be badly affected 10 years after the event.
"Girls said they felt older than their peers. The closeness of death had caused them to reassess their values, to make the most of what life offered, to express their feelings of love and concern more openly. But the innocence of terror and fear, an important part of childhood, had been lost. The future was no longer secure."
Their plight forms the focus of an Institute of Psychiatry report - the result of one of the largest studies of adolescent disaster survivors - to be published in the new year. The research is expected to conclude that more than two-thirds of those linked with the Jupiter have endured mental illness and more than half have been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a relatively recently recognised condition which can persist for months and even years. Among the long-term symptoms are nightmares, flashbacks, depression, anxiety, guilt, excessive jumpiness, constant thoughts of the trauma and avoidance of situations associated with it. ne of the survivors - a girl from Romford in east London - has committed suicide and 15 of the 158 survivors interviewed by Institute psychologists said they had attempted to do likewise.
Today, still haunted by what they witnessed and endured, very few are able or prepared to talk publicly about how their lives have been altered. ne rare exception is Carole Gardner, now aged 24. She recalls how initially no one thought there was any need for the survivors to be given expert guidance. "All I was told was that I didn't need help because my experience was no different than falling down stairs," she says. "But I started going to pieces. I couldn't control what was happening to me. I was starting to go mad." What saved her from doing so was receiving individual counselling for five years at Maudesley Hospital.
"I'm no longer a gibbering wreck. I'm now getting slowly better. I've not had a flashback for five years but I still have nightmares. Looking at myself now, I realise how lucky I am. No one has been unaffected and yet some girls have had no counselling. They are worse now than when they came back home after the disaster." Her academic career has been badly disrupted. "I couldn't sit in the quiet exam halls because pictures would enter my head and I would get quite agitated."
Doggedly, however, she ploughed on, and eventually managed to secure a place at Bristol University. At the end of this year she will complete her professional training to become a teacher. "ne of the best things I've been taught is how to control my feelings. By learning various coping techniques, I'm managing to avoid panic attacks triggered by, say, a sudden bang. I also find it therapeutic to talk and I find it easy to listen, to soak up other people's problems. But some of the others don't want to talk. thers are not allowed to." Schools, she points out, offer great support structures and she is enthusiastically looking forward to starting her classroom career. "What I went through was horrible. But life is much more stable now"
`Jupiter's Children' is published by Liverpool University Press at the end of ctober, price pounds 9.95. Approximately 40 per cent of profits from the book will be given to Disaster Action, a charity campaigning on behalf of victims of British tragedies (including Hillsborough, King's Cross, Clapham, and those involving other sailing craft such as the `Marchioness' and `Herald of Free Enterprise').
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