'Who's driving the ship?' a passenger joked. Then, after a shudder, the screaming began

The Ordeal
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Passengers thought it was curious. The Samina Express ferry was two kilometres from the Greek holiday island of Paros, the first stop on a six-island hop, but to the people on its decks the crowded ship appeared to be sailing through the night without a crew.

Passengers thought it was curious. The Samina Express ferry was two kilometres from the Greek holiday island of Paros, the first stop on a six-island hop, but to the people on its decks the crowded ship appeared to be sailing through the night without a crew.

As the ship sailed on through rough seas, Christa Liczbinski, on holiday from Seeheim, near Frankfurt, joked with her husband: "Who's driving the ship?"

On the 345-foot, 4,407-ton ferry some passengers, travelling further than Paros, were settling down for the night, some in cabins, the rest in considerably less comfort on the hard seats up on the decks.

Others passengers were in the ship's lounges, watching the Greek club Panathinaikos and Hamburg FC in a European Champions' League match.

There are suspicions that that the game also accounted for the strange absence of most - if not all - of the Samina's officers and crew. They too, its claimed, were glued to the match.

Christine Shannon, 30, an artist from Seattle, was on the main deck around 10.30pm (local time) when the Samina, carrying 511 passengers and crew, hit a large jagged outcrop of rock.

The ship's officers claim an orderly evacuation followed. But passengers described chaos and panic, and a disastrous chain of events that reminded them of the Titanic.

Ms Shannon watched in horror as the ship advanced on the rocks, just as the look-out apparently saw the fatal iceberg loom up before the Titanic.

It is not clear how difficult it was for passengers to escape but the guide book Greek Island Hopping recently warned of a dangerous lack of exit routes on the ship following measures to prevent deck passengers getting into higher-price ticket areas.

What is certain is that the Samina was immediately plunged into darkness and, fatally gored by the reef, quickly filled with water and listed to one side.

Screams rang through the darkness as passengers, some in pyjamas, many trailing weeping children, scrambled up from below, clinging to railings, while, as one survivor, Effi Hiou, said, "the ship turned into a slide". Ms Hiou said the vessel was already tipping over before she scrambled from bed. By the time she reached the deck, one of its sides was "touching the sea ... and one after the other we fell into it."

The Samina had smashed into the islet of Portes, a well-lit outcrop on the way into Paros harbour which must have been familiar to the captain and crew.

Later, bewildered Greek coast guards said that only a blind man could have missed it. A port official collapsed and died of a heart attack after hearing that the Samina had sunk.

Survivors said that no crew members materialised on deck to supervise an evacuation and described how they clung to the topside of the ship, wondering how to launch the lifeboats themselves.

A few lifeboats do appear to have been launched but most passengers seem to have ended up in the water, without so much as a lifejacket. They floundered in the dark, many clinging together round a single life jacket in the struggle to survive. Around them floated suitcases and other belongings.

Another survivor, Andreas Spanos, a sailor, said: "Lots of people jumped into the sea. I jumped in too. I knew the vessel was going to sink once it started listing ... I could hear people screaming in the distance."

The Samina, 34 years old and nearing the age limit for Greek ferries, perished with astounding speed. Passengers said it disappeared beneath increasingly rough waters in 30 to 45 minutes.

Another survivor, Zoe Kolidas, said it disintegrated as it sank. "There were people hanging from the railings," she said. "Children were crying and old people were screaming. I jumped in and looked back and after about 50 meters the ship was gone."

Ms Hiou remembered the terror of swimming around in the water with hundreds of others begging for help. "I called out to people in boats 'take us as well, help us'. People young and old were calling out. I was swimming, I was trying ... but I was wearing shoes and pyjamas ... Every metre or so I would call for help ... I felt a hand grab my foot. I told them 'don't pull me, I don't know how to swim very well, don't pull me, I'm trying to swim'."

After more than an hour in the water Ms Hiou found a plank of wood to cling to. "Big waves kept coming," she said. "We kept swallowing water and we said 'this will be our tomb'." Eventually, around midnight she was picked up by a boat, already full of people "soaked and piled like sheep".

Another passenger, George Kioulafis, found himself struggling in the water near a woman and her baby boy. He said: "I heard the cries of the baby. I managed to save it but his mother died."

Michael Beaton, a Briton, tried to help push people over the railing as the ship went down. Some were clearly too terrified to plunge into the dark waters.

An engineer, Stamatis Delavinias, who also compared the manner and speed of the sinking of the Samina to that of the Titanic, said: "The boat sank in about half an hour. There were old women and others who were afraid to jump into the sea."

The Samina sank very quickly. That the rescue was launched by Greek fisherman with similar speed saved hundreds of lives. About 25 boats formed a an armada that braved winds, by now force eight, to pluck passengers from the sea.

Yesterday the fisherman of Paros were called heroes by Mr Kioulafis, who said that without them many more passengers would have died.

But not everyone could be quickly located and saved. Some survivors reported spending hours treading water, screaming for help.

Even as scores were being taken to hospital on Paros to be treated for injuries and hypothermia, bodies were washing up on the Paros beaches. Rescuers said 17 of the dead were picked up on Punta beach, one of the most popular spots on the island.

Four British naval vessels, on exercise in the area, sent helicopters and steamed to the scene.

A Royal Navy spokesman described the scenes from the air on a "black, rough, very windy night" as helicopter teams struggled to reach the victims. "People were spotted clinging to rocks in the swelling seas," said the spokesman. Twelve people, including two Britons, were winched to safety "almost by luck". There were reports from Paros airport of a Royal Navy helicopter landing with four bodies, including that of a baby.

Early reports about the disaster said that no passengers had been injured or killed. It was many hours before the full truth about of the tragedy became known.

For families on the mainland, at the port of Piraeus, from which the Samina had set sail five hours before the collision, there was an agonising wait for news about who had lived and who had died.