Clamour for ferry inquiry fuelled by shame and fury

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Still clutching the orange lifejacket that saved him, Stam Kotsornithis was back on the Aegean, sailing past the spot where he was shipwrecked only three days earlier.

Still clutching the orange lifejacket that saved him, Stam Kotsornithis was back on the Aegean, sailing past the spot where he was shipwrecked only three days earlier.

He was using the same ferry line, Minoan Flying Dolphins, although on a high-speed vessel far less decrepit and ill-equipped than the 34-year-old Express Samina, the ship that claimed at least 77 lives and nearly killed him.

The scene was very different now. The waters around the two jagged rocks guarding the entrance to the island of Paros, and which the ferry struck, were a benign blue. Seabirds wheeled over the outcrop, two large mounds separated by a narrow strait, drowsing now in warm sunshine.

Only those who survived the nightmare of Tuesday night - as hundreds of screaming passengers were pitched into gale-whipped seas by a ferry that tilted and sank like a punctured paper cup - could imagine the scenes 72 hours before.

Mr Kotsornithis, 30, seemed outwardly calm. But the way he was clutching the lifejacket, with its stencilled lettering bearing the notorious ferry's name, suggested he will not soon forget he could so easily be dead, were it not for his rescuers in a Paros fishing boat.

The rest of today's passengers, mostly backpackers travelling the islands mingled with survivors returning home, behaved no differently than the crowds on any evening ferry from Paros to the mainland.

Not, at least, until the Greek TV news came up on the big screens. Now that the 45mph gales that had swept the Aegean most of last week were over, the bodies were coming in. The screens showed black body bags being carried off a fishing boat. The passenger lounge fell silent. A man in the front row began to weep. A young couple folded themselves into a tight embrace, searching for comfort from an incurable pain.

When the broadcast was over, Mr Kotsornithis, a photo shop worker from Athens, gently placed his hand on my arm."You an English journalist?" he asked. "You write in your paper that I am sorry. You write that I ask forgiveness for my country. We let irresponsible people do irresponsible things. I know saying this is not enough, but I really am sorry."

The Greeks are angry about the Express Samina disaster - headlines screamed "Murderers" in the Greek press - and profoundly embarrassed. The disaster belongs to a world the younger generation, people like Mr Kotsornithis are trying to forget. A world of ineptitude, corruption and carelessness, an old world of red tape and derelict equipment in which nothing works and no one cares. There are, he says sadly, "cultural differences between Greece and western Europe", but that did not make him less apologetic.

Greece has, in some areas, made so much progress. Paros is a paradigm of civilised orderliness. Credit cards are accepted in the vine-clad terraced restaurants. Holiday-makers sit at computer term- inals in the seafront internet café, firing off messages home. The narrow streets between the whitewashed buildings of Parikia are spotless and - in these autumn days - serene.

The peace is disturbed only by the buzz of motor scooters on which tourists pooter around the tiny roads. It is as neat as a napkin; a Toy Town island of windblown rock and marble-adorned white churches and guest-houses, tailored discreetly to the leisure needs of western Europe.

That facade was shattered last week. The day after the tragedy, in the port authority's harbourside office Greece was its old self. The commandant of the Greek coastguard, Vice-Admiral Andreas Syrigos was sitting in an office, bellowing long and loud into a phone he held 1ft from his mouth.

Outside, crewmen from the Express Samina and local fishermen quarrelled over whether the sailors had done enough to help people off the sinking ferry or whether, as passengers say, they fended for themselves. Lifejackets and luggage from the ferry was piled at the door; no one stopped people helping themselves to a memento from the disaster. And several did.

Admiral Syrigos was struggling to contain his emotion. "We really can't find any explanation. You put your questions - why, why, why? I ask myself, 'When you see a light on rocks in front of you which is visible from seven miles distance, why drive the boat to this specific point?' They [the captain and his first officer] say they were on the bridge. They say they were doing their best, but I just don't know."

Now the task facing Greece is to hold a genuinely efficient and thorough inquiry that can convince the world the ferry disaster was an aberration.

The questions are many: was the ship on automatic pilot, and if so why? Were the captain and crew watching football? Was the captain on the bridge, as the law says he should have been, given the bad weather? Why were there no safety instructions, and why did the passengers not know where to find the lifejackets? And why did the crew wait 15 minutes before telling the coastguard of the emergency?

There are ominous signs - as ever in public transport accidents - that the corporate money men and their lawyers will stop at little to lay the blame elsewhere. Bodies were still floating when Costas Klironomos, head of the ferry company, said the captain had been "blind" not to see the rocks, and all evidence pointed to human error, as if the company was blameless.

They are the ones, not poor Stam Kotsornithis, who should be apologising to the world.