South Africa probes cause of luxury liner's sinking

August 06, 1991|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun John H. Gormley Jr. of The Sun's Business staff contributed to this article from Baltimore.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Amid charges of misconduct by the crew and reports of possible sabotage, South African authorities have begun trying to sort out what happened aboard a Greek luxury liner that sank during a weekend storm.

tTC Authorities said all passengers and crew members were rescued in one of the biggest rescue operations ever conducted off South Africa's "Wild Coast" between East London and Durban.

Minister of Transport Piet Welgemoed said a maritime court would investigate the sinking Sunday of the Oceanos. He said the court would determine the cause of the disaster. Maritime officials said the investigation would also determine whether the crew violated any international maritime laws.

Angry passengers accused the captain and crew of deserting the ship as it sank in the Indian Ocean, leaving them to be rescued by singers, comedians and Filipino cooks.

Captain Yiannis Avranas told reporters in Durban that he did not desert the ship but left to coordinate rescue efforts from shore. Maritime officials who did not want to be quoted said it was possible that the passengers thought they were being deserted when in fact the captain was trying to expedite the rescue.

Passengers said the entertainment staff of the Oceanos coordinated rescue operations on board and saw all the passengers safely off before the liner went down.

"We were so angry with the ship's captain we wanted to stone him," said Irene Smith, one of 580 people who spent a terrifying night being lashed by 30-foot waves and rocked by 90-mile-an-hour winds until they were rescued from the sinking ship.

The "Wild Coast" strip has been known for freak storms anshipwrecks for centuries, but passengers blamed the captain for taking unnecessary risks by sailing the 29-year-old cruise ship in a major storm. Authorities said they also received an anonymous telephone tip that a bomb had been smuggled aboard the Oceanos.

Irate passengers, transported safely to East London and othecoastal towns by military vessels and cargo ships, said Captain Avranas and his officers were among the first to hop onto a helicopter to get off the luxury liner.

"I was left to command the ship and to coordinate a massive serescue operation with only radio help," said Robin Boltman, the cruise director and ship's comedian.

He told reporters that the entertainment staff, employees of TFTours, kept passengers calm and helped them off the ship and onto rescue craft after the captain and crew had left.

"The entertainers on that ship did a wonderful job," said MarLouw, a South African singer who was booked by the tour company. "It was not their job to do what they did. But the Greek crew disappeared early.

"They left the ship far earlier than everybody else. I mean, that's unbelievable," she said.

The only crew members left behind apparently were the Filipino cooks and cabin crew, who said they were the last to leave the ill-fatedship.

"It is a rule of the sea that the crew are the last to leave and we were the last to leave," second cook Irenco Lingat told the South African Press Association.

Mr. Lingat confirmed that several Greek officers left early on helicopters that arrived Sunday morning. "Not all the Greek officers left the ship early, but it was only the Filipino crew who remained to the end."

Captain Avranas admitted that "quite a few" people were still on the ship when he left Sunday morning but said the rescue was well under way by that time.

"I don't care what these people say about me. I am separated from my family who were rescued by one of the other ships, and I have lost my own ship. What more do they want?" he asked.

Among people familiar with maritime traditions, Captain Avranas' behavior was viewed as a gross violation of his primary responsibility, the safety of his passengers and crew.

Frank O. Braynard, a maritime historian and curator of the American Merchant Marine Museum at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at King's Point, N.Y., called the decision of the captain to leave the ship "completely wrong."

"There's no excuse. It's cowardice of the first order," Mr. Braynard said.

The captain is not expected to go down with the ship, but is expected to be the last to leave, he said.

"It's very much an accepted tradition that the captain is responsible for the lives of everyone on board," he said.

The tradition is very strongly felt among mariners. In November 1965, 89 people died when the cruise ship Yarmouth Castle caught fire and sank in the Caribbean.

In that case, Mr. Braynard said, the captain of a rescue vessel refused to pick up the Yarmouth Castle's captain, who had fled in one of the first lifeboats to leave the ship. "The captain [of the rescue ship] was so outraged he sent him back to the burning ship," Mr. Braynard said. The captain was eventually rescued.

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