'This was an accident waiting to happen'

The Ferry
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Known as "the worst Greek ferry afloat", the Express Samina has been described as "a large grime bucket with a reputation for running late".

Known as "the worst Greek ferry afloat", the Express Samina has been described as "a large grime bucket with a reputation for running late".

Built 34 years ago, the Express was one of the oldest car ferries in the Greek fleet. A year away from compulsory retirement, it was a workhorse on the busy holiday and domestic routes between Piraeus and the outlying archipelago of the Cyclades islands.

"Given the age of this ferry, this was an accident waiting to happen," said Frewin Poffley, author of The Greek Island Hopping Guide. "Her 1960s design - with the comparative lack of exit facilities - would make it hard to escape from inside the vessel in a rapid sinking, as the only exits for deck-class passengers are at the stern.

"Other doors are usually kept locked on vessels of this age to prevent deck-class passengers going into higher ticket price areas."

The Express Samina began life as the French SNCM ferry, Corse, and had changed hands several times down the years.

The design was a few steps removed from Second World War landing craft, the forebears of car ferries such as the Express Samina. It lacks the modern bulkhead, now mandatory in the design of ferries' car decks - essentially to prevent them sinking quickly once water gets onto the flat surface and exaggerates any listing.

Though it took 45 minutes for the ferry to sink completely, it began listing within moments of hitting its stern on a rocky outcrop in the sea, survivors said - pointing to a dramatic intake of water over the car deck.

The fact that hundreds of people survived this accident was clearly due to the relative warmth of the Aegean; when the ferry Estonia capsized in stormy seas in September 1994, more than 852 passengers and crew died in the freezing waters of the Baltic - only 137 survived. Survivors from Tuesday night's disaster outnumbered the dead by about 10 to one, even after being in the water for hours.

Two years ago, the Express Samina's identical sister ship, Naias II - renamed Express Naias - was investigated by the EU Commission after indepedent nautical experts described it as the "worst ship" in a test of 30 European ferries . Among the faults highlighted - and later rectified - were a lack of automatic fire doors, broken lifeboat engines and flammable liquids on the car deck.

"It is indicative of the inspection standards in Greece that any ferry could be operated in this state in the first place," said Mr Poffley yesterday. "It is not known what steps - if any - the new owners [Minoan Flying Dolphins] took to improve the safety standards on either boat."

Minoan Flying Dolphins recently played a major role in the biggest shake-up in the Greek ferry fleet. The company, a subsidiary of Minoan Lines, owns almost a third of the domestic ferry fleet.

Many of the older ferries currently sailing in the Mediterranean have been bought from countries that had disgarded them as being unfit after signing up to the SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea) ferry safety requirements - drawn up followingthe Herald of Free Enterprise and Estonia disasters.

Greece has signed up to SOLAS, but some tour experts were scathing about the standards of ferries operating in such busy waters. Tracy Wye, a tour leader familiar with the ferries said: "The safety standards on those ferries were slap-dash to say the least."

Passengers were herded onto boats like cattle, she said, with no records kept of who was on board.

The last major tragedy in Greek waters was in 1966, when the British-built Heraklion sank in the Aegean Sea with the loss of 180 lives.

A fire on board the Heleanna, three years later, cost 26 lives, and in November 1999, a blaze on Greece's newest passenger ship, Superfast III, left claimed the lives of 10 Kurdish illegal immigrants.