Disaster ferry crew face murder charges

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The captain and three crew members of a Greek ferry boat that sank killing at least 66 people have been charged with multiple counts of murder.

The captain and three crew members of a Greek ferry boat that sank killing at least 66 people have been charged with multiple counts of murder.

Investigators are focusing on reports that the ship carrying more than 500 passengers was apparently on automatic pilot minutes before striking a well-marked rocky outcrop.

This has been backed by survivors' accounts that crew members were watching a soccer match when the ship sank two miles from shore.

Efforts by navy divers and rescue crews to find at least eight missing people were hampered by a fierce gale that has stopped all boat traffic to and from the holiday island of Paros. Rescuers say there could be up to 14 missing.

Although the ship had just passed an inspection, a prosecutor was also investigating accusations the 34-year-old Express Samina had propulsion and steering problems.

Described as a "rusting hulk" by the Greek Merchant Marine Mechanics Union, the ferry was to be decommissioned next year.

Greece's worst ferry sinking in 35 years has dealt a serious blow to a nation that prides itself on a maritime tradition dating back more than 2,000 years.

In 1965, 217 people died in the sinking of the passenger ship Iraklion.

Survivors have also accused the crew of panicking and failing to organize the evacuation of the ship, saying life boats were not quickly deployed.

Many attributed their rescue to the proximity of the shore, and a small fleet of fishing boats that sped to the sinking vessel.

Premier Costas Simitis held an emergency Cabinet meeting and discussed the shipwreck which has plunged this country of 10.2 million into mourning.

"The premier is closely following the investigation and wants in carried out quickly," said government spokesman Tilemahos Hitiris.

"It is inconceivable that lives were lost this way."

Government officials said no mercy would be shown to those found responsible for the sinking.

"Criminals, a blind course on autopilot" screamed a banner headline in the normally staid daily Eltherotypia.

"Murderers," ran another headline in the daily Eleftheros Typos.

The ship's captain Vassilis Yannakis, his deputy, Anastasios Psychoyos, and two crewmen were charged with five felonies, regional prosecutor Dimitrios Dadinopoulos said.

The prosecutor said the charges included multiple counts of homicide with possible malice, causing serious bodily injuries with possible malice, violating maritime regulations, violating international regulations on avoiding an accident, and sinking a ship.

Officials plan to transfer the men to the island of Syros to be questioned by an investigating magistrate. Syros is the administrative capital of the Cyclades island chain.

Ship's owner Costas Klironomos also blamed his own crew, saying in a statement that "all the indications point to human error and that there are members of the crew who have shown criminal negligence."

The ship left Athens' port of Piraeus Tuesday afternoon and headed for Paros, the first of six stops that would eventually bring it to the tiny Lipsis islands near the Turkish coast.

About 10pm, the 103.5-metre, 4,407-ton ferry rammed into the Portes islet.

Results of a preliminary investigation indicated the captain was not on the bridge and that his second in command took the helm when the ship was just 200 yards from Portes, two large rocks which are clearly marked on navigational charts and have a light beacon visible for seven miles.

According to a transcript published in Eleftherotypia, Psychyos told investigators he saw the rocks at the last minute and ordered the helmsman to turn the ship.

"When I saw the ship was headed for the two rocks I personally grabbed the wheel and turned hard left. It is my fault," he was quoted as saying.

But officials say it remains unclear why the ship rammed the rocks if claims are true that least one crewmember, the helmsman, was on the bridge.

"It's a rock with a light on it ... in a frequently traveled area that has been passed thousands of times... my question is, why did this happen?" asked Coast Guard chief Andreas Sirigos.

Coast guard investigators were examining passenger reports that most of the crew was watching a European Champions League soccer match when the ferry crashed.

One survivor, Manolis Diktas told state television that "members of the crew, including officers, were watching the game."

A funeral service was held on this island for port authority official Dimitris Malamas, 43. He died of a heart attack when he heard news of the sinking.

Hundreds of islanders gathered in the main cathedral as ships in the harbor blew their horns.

Most of the dead were transferred by helicopter to a morgue in Athens, where relatives have been identifying the remains.

So far the body of only one foreigner, a 51-year-old Norwegian citizen, has been identified. Officials in Greece and Canada said two Canadians of Greek descent were among the dead.

There were 72 foreigners on the boat, from Albania, Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, South Africa, Ukraine, and two from the United States.

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