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Passengers Say Crew Abandoned Sinking Cruise Ship

August 5, 1991

EAST LONDON, South Africa (AP) _ Passengers from a Greek cruise ship that sank in stormy seas off South Africa said today that the crew abandoned the vessel while hundreds of people were still on board.

The ship’s owner today rejected the accusations. The company said some crew members were the first to board lifeboats as the liner Oceanos sank Sunday about a mile offshore. But the company said they were needed to help the passengers aboard and assist them onto rescue vessels.

The South African air force said all 361 passengers were safe, but officials were still trying to determine whether all crew members had been rescued.

More than 570 people were rescued by military helicopters, cargo ships and other vesssels Sunday, air force Maj. Gerrie Evert said.

Evert said four crew members had not been located, but added, ″We haven’t seen any bodies in the water.″

Search operations were continuing, however the missing four may be on two ships that helped in the rescue but had not been contacted, officials said.

Transport Ministry officials were investigating claims that many of the crew were among the first to abandon the Durban-bound ship.

Passengers claimed crewmembers took the ship’s only two motorized lifeboats, leaving passengers to try to launch regular motorless lifeboats.

″They left us in the lurch. They knew ... that the ship was going to sink and didn’t say a thing,″ said passenger Kevin Ellis. ″All the crew who knew how to operate lifeboats had gone.″

Stephanie Hankinson, the ship’s photographer, said the crew’s departure created havoc: ″They left and there was a total state of panic because nobody else knew how to let the lifeboats down.″

Employees and entertainers of the South African tour company that rented the Oceanos reportedly took over, launching lifeboats and helping people who were airlifted to safety by helicopters.

A spokesman for Epirotiki Lines, the owner of the ship, said crew members played a critical role in the evacuation, which he said was according to a plan drawn up to keep many passengers from the raging seas.

″The fact that the operation was so successful with all on board saved, proves that the rescue plan was the correct one,″ the spokesman, Capt. Alevizos Klaudatos, said in a telephone interview from Athens.

Capt. Yiannis Avranas defended his decision to be among the first to leave the ship, saying it was necessary to direct rescue operations from shore.

″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 lost my own ship - what more do they want?″ he told reporters.

Terrified passengers waited for help all night on the ship’s upper deck. As the ship began to list, some leaped overboard, Evert said.

One man was rescued after 10 hours in the water, eight miles from where the ship sank, said Air Force Maj. Andres Steenkamp.

The last people on board were rescued at midday Sunday - only 90 minutes before the Oceanos sank.

Military officials said they did not know why the ship began taking on water, but that its proximity to shore suggested it may have hit a reef off the dangerous ″Wild Coast.″

The captain said a piston in the engine room burst, knocking a hole in the hull.

The ship foundered when its engine room was flooded and began listing heavily after it was battered by waves up to 24 feet high.

Transport Minister P.J. Welgemoed told state television his department would investigate a report of a telephone bomb threat against the ship.

Harbor Control in East London received the threat about 24 hours before the vessel began taking on water.

Police Maj. Gen. Johan Rust said police went to the investigate but were denied access by ship Capt. Avranas. Rust said ship security officials reported finding no evidence of a bomb.

Ship officials denied Avranas would not allow authorities on board to search.

The 7,554-ton Oceanos - 495 feet long and 64 feet wide - was carrying mostly South African passengers.

It had left this Indian Ocean port on Saturday on the return leg of a Durban-Cape Town-Durban cruise. It sank off Coffee Bay, part of the Transkei black homeland.

The Oceanos is the third cruise ship Epirotiki Lines has lost the past three years.

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