Passengers aboard a crowded cruise ship that sank off a Greek island on Thursday say the evacuation was marked by a shortage of life vests, malfunctioning rescue boats, incompetent crew members, and near panic as people fled the rising water below deck.
It took rescuers and the crew of the “Sea Diamond” five hours to evacuate the cruise ship, which sank into the dark waters of the Aegean Sea — possibly with two French tourists who remain missing — just off the island of Santorini.
“It was total chaos,” Cory Friedman, an 18-year-old from Florida on spring break, recalled Monday on TODAY.
“There was no leadership, really ... I saw a steward and said, ‘Give me your life vest,’ and he did,” said Kathryn Johns, another American tourist on board at the time of the incident.
Friedman, Johns and another TODAY guest, Laurel Kossow, were among the 1,154 passengers and 391 crew evacuated from the “MV Sea Diamond,” operated by the Cyprus-based Louis Cruise Lines.
The ship's captain, who was charged with negligence but has yet to be identified, told authorities strong currents drew the ship into a volcanic reef. The collision injured several passengers and ripped large holes into the ship's hull, allowing water to rush in, according to state-run television.
“We heard a kind of scraping noise, a long scrapping noise,” Kossow said. “We thought maybe it was the anchor dropping.”
“It was a little thump,” Johns added.
Passengers panic, crew unprepared
But when passengers wearing life vests started rushing upstairs from the flooded decks below, the travelers knew something was wrong and joined them. The evacuation was rushed and reached near-panic proportions, with some people pushing and shoving their way to the main deck.
“I just got dressed and ran as fast I could outside to the deck,” said Friedman, who videotaped the chaotic scene. “I figured nothing like this could happen to me.”
As the ship started to lean toward the starboard side and rescue boats began to surround the listing ship, passengers began realizing how unprepared the crew was to deal with the situation.
Gates leading to the life boats apparently had been painted so many times that they stuck. Life vests were in short supply, and the mechanism used to lower and raise the life boats malfunctioned, and some could not be raised again to retrieve more passengers. The “Sea Diamond” went down relatively slowly, with time for everyone on the main deck to escape the vessel.
The Greek government has promised a full investigation, and the cruise line vowed to cooperate. But for some of the passengers of the “Sea Diamond's” last voyage, it will be awhile before they get on another cruise ship.
“Not in the near future,” Kossow said. “I don't know. Not next week.”
— John Springer, TODAYShow.com contributor, and news reports