NEWS

Effort goes on to save ship

The effort to rescue an estimated 250 people on a ship in distress in the stormy seas south of Crete has been complicated by the confusing communications from the ship and its strange behavior as a flotilla of rescue ships and helicopters has sped to the scene, officials said yesterday. Merchant Marine Minister Giorgos Anomeritis and Coast Guard Chief Andreas Syrigos briefed reporters on authorities’ actions following a telephone call from a mobile phone saying that the ship was in trouble. They spoke while the operation was still in progress, with the unnamed, unflagged vessel being helped to edge toward the southern shore of Crete in winds reaching 9 and 10 on the Beaufort scale. «It was a very difficult operation. An operation that just when you felt you could relax because all was going well, you would hear suddenly over Olympic Radio voices crying that the ship was sinking, that it was taking on water. You understand that even if we considered that the calls might be deceptive, we had to make all the efforts that we made, and which had a successful outcome,» Syrigos said. Anomeritis said that the first word of a ship in trouble had come at 6.20 p.m. on Tuesday, with a woman saying on a mobile phone that the ship was taking on water. «It was a ship without a name, without a flag, without a captain. No one knows what it was about,» he said. «The strangest thing was that you could not communicate with anyone. For example, a woman with a mobile phone would say ‘We’re taking on water and we’re drowning,’ and this was not true. It appears that there were different groups on the ship and they were quarreling, causing the ship to head toward Italy and then turn around again, then to start to go under the waves,» Anomeritis said. At one point, he said, someone aboard claimed the ship was carrying tourists. «Everyone estimates that there are about 230 to 250 ethnic-Kurd migrants on the ship,» he said. Authorities believe it was bound from Turkey to Italy when it suffered engine failure southeast of Crete, in the storm-tossed Libyan Sea. Anomeritis said that many ships rushed to the scene in heavy weather, and that a Singapore-flagged ship, the Aspen, which is about 250 meters long, served as protection from the weather for the small boat which some reports described as being about 40 meters long. A team of engineers from the British navy ship the HMS Beagle, which was in the region, boarded the mystery ship and repaired one of its two engines, allowing it to continue on its own steam toward Ierapetra, on the Cretan coast. The Spanish frigate Extremadura, which was conducting exercises 100 miles away asked for permission to help in the operation and was granted it. Several other ships were helping out, including the Dutch naval auxiliary ship Amsterdam, the Italian freighter Ilaria, Greek coast guard patrol boat 515 and fishing vessels. An all-weather Super Puma and two navy helicopters were helping pluck women and children from the ship yesterday and depositing them on the Amsterdam and on land in Ierapetra. Local authorities were mobilizing to provide shelter and food. Anomeritis said that since Greece and Turkey had signed a protocol on readmitting illegal immigrants (in November), «in seven cases when we notified the Turkish coast guard to come and take vessels from the maritime border, it came and took all seven.» He stressed that this had included an American-flagged vessel, a British-flagged one and one with Greek crew members. There was no indication yesterday, however, that the ship in question was Turkish or had set sail from Turkey. But Anomeritis said that Turkish officials were the first to receive word of trouble from the vessel.