Athens (CNSNews.com) - Human error appears to have led to a major human tragedy in the Aegean Sea with the sinking late Tuesday night of a Greek ferryboat with more than 500 people on board.
The helmsman of the Express Samina apparently did not see navigation lights indicating the presence of a reef two miles off the popular resort island of Paros. The vessel struck the rocks and sank within 20 minutes.
Panicky passengers and crew hurriedly put on lifejackets and fell into rough seas.
At least 59 bodies have been recovered, but another 30 people remain unaccounted for. Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Athens and the Merchant Marine Ministry said it appeared there were no Americans onboard, although more than 60 foreigners were reported among the passengers.
A senior Paros port official died of a heart attack while coordinating rescue operations.
President Costis Stephanopoulos sent a message of sympathy to the survivors and relatives of the victims of the worst maritime tragedy in Greece in 34 years.
Justice Minister Michalis Stathopoulos told reporters an investigation had begun.
"We are all devastated," he said. "There are big responsibilities everywhere, which will be investigated."
Prime Minister Costas Simitis confirmed that the cause of the accident would be "fully investigated and responsibilities attributed."
Although the company owning the ship, Minoan Flying Dolphin, said its records showed the ship was carrying 447 passengers and 64 crew, the actual number of people on the ship apparently was higher, according to port authority sources.
Many of the passengers on the 110-meter vessel, which was on a regular route from Piraeus port to the islands of Paros, Naxos, Patmos and Lipsi, were Paros residents, and some of those reported as missing may have gone home without checking in with the authorities.
Five crewmembers, including captain Vassilis Yannakis and second-in-command Antonis Psychogios, have been arrested pending the investigation.
A helicopter from the British frigate HMS Liverpool, on manoeuvres nearby, picked up fifteen survivors stranded for more than two hours on a nearby rocky outcrop.
The Express Samina was a 34-year-old vessel and due to be withdrawn from service in December. Harbor Corp officials told a press conference in Piraeus that officials had inspected the vessel a few hours before it set sail and had found "everything to be functioning regularly."\plain\lang1033\f2\fs23