Disaster in the Aegean: 83 feared dead as ferry runs into rocks

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The death toll in the Greek ferry disaster may reach 100, with several children among the 62 bodies already recovered from the turbulent waters off the island of Paros. At least 20 people were unaccounted for last night.

The death toll in the Greek ferry disaster may reach 100, with several children among the 62 bodies already recovered from the turbulent waters off the island of Paros. At least 20 people were unaccounted for last night.

The Greek Supreme Court prosecutor was seeking indictments for murder after the Justice Minister, Michalis Stathopoulos, blamed "criminal negligence". The ship's captain, Vassilis Yannakis, his lieutenant, Anastasios Psychoyos, and three other crew members were arrested amid rumours that many of the staff had been watching televised coverage of a Greek team playing a Champions League football match at the time of the collision.

The 34-year-old Express Samina had run straight into a huge outcrop of rock that is marked on maritime charts and houses a navigation light. Andreas Sirigos, a Coastguard spokesman, said: "You have to be blind not to see it. It is inexplicable how the ship collided with a well-known rock that carries a light visible from a distance of seven miles."

The task of searching for survivors and trawling for bodies continued all day around the Portes islet at the mouth of Paros harbour where the ferry foundered. Survivors, among them 14 Britons, described how the ferry suffered a violent collision and sank in gale force winds within 45 minutes, with 511 passengers and crew aboard.

Heidi Hart, a 26-year-old from the United States, described the sense of panic that swept the ferry as the tragedy unfolded. "Nobody told us to do anything," said: "They were just yelling and pushing. We were handing out life vests. People were starting to jump out of the boat without vests. I thought we were going to die the whole time. We got on a boat and they let it down. There was a hole in it."

Emil Popper, 34, a company director from Cardiff, said there was "total chaos" as people leapt off the sinking ship. He said: "Basically it was mayhem at the back of the ship. There was no organisation."

"People were jumping off the ship, there was absolutely no prioritization. There was nothing left of the boat on the side we were holding onto and it was a question of clawing our way down the ship."

Last night, as the rescue mission, which had been assisted by Royal Navy warships and helicopter crews, was quickly becoming a recovery operation, with an "extremely remote" chance of finding any survivors.

Executives from Minoan Flying Dolphins/Hellas Ferries, the company that had recently bought the vessel, were summoned by officials in Athens. No British travellers were reported to be among the dead. But a Foreign Office spokesman cautioned that it was too early to confirm whether this was the case because of the large numbers of victims involved.

Confusion continued to reign as to how many people were actually crammed on the ageing ferry. Initial reports suggested that the official figures of 447 passengers and 63 crew might be an underestimate. The shipping company did not have records of all those aboard. Children under five, for example, were not issues tickets.

Among the dead identified last night were 19 Greeks, including one baby, and a Norwegian woman.

Commander Henry Parker, of HMS Invincible, said: "Almost all the survivors managed to get to shore but we also picked up some more quickly - it is mainly those who did not survive that are being picked up now."

Invincible, which had been on exercise in the area, went to the assist local rescuers - including a flotilla of fisherman - along with HMS Liverpool, RFA Fort George and HMS Cumberland.

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, spoke of his "immense sadness" at the tragedy and offered further Royal Navy assistance in a message to his Greek counterpart.

The ferry had been on a routine trip of the islands andwas approaching the Aegean holiday destination of Paros shortly before 10.30pm (7.30pm British time).

Scores jumped overboard and were left clinging to rocky outcrops in icy conditions for several hours before being airlifted to safety. Some bodies washed up on the beach at Paros, one and a half miles away.

Last night questions were already being raised as to the safety standards on board he ferry though operator insisted it had been found seaworthy following a merchant marine inspection only last week.

"The company declares that it...will make available all its services to shed light on the reasons for the tragic accident."the company said in a statement.