Narrow escape from Norman Atlantic fails to dampen one Austrian’s support for Greece

Erwin Schrumpf, from Austria, was one of the last passengers to be rescued from the Norman Atlantic, the Greek ferry that went up in flames on December 28 while traveling from Greece to Italy, claiming the lives of at least nine passengers and two rescue workers. When he grabbed hold of the ladder dropped down from an Italian rescue helicopter, there was just a handful of people still on the flaming vessel. But not once in the 39 hours of his ordeal did he lose hope. “I trusted in God that I would be saved,” he told his family later.

Schrumpf was returning home after running another aid mission to Greece. On Christmas Day he had parked his van, as usual, at the entrance of the Elpis Hospital in Athens, where he donates medicine and equipment that he collects himself by knocking on the doors of pharmaceutical companies. His organization, Help for Greece (Griechenlandhilfe), which was founded two years ago, has hundreds of Austrian supporters but is essentially a one-man show. Schrumpf has already conducted 20 missions to Greece, delivering more than 60 tons of medical equipment and products to hospitals and medical centers not just in the capital, but all over the country too.

His van and all of his equipment were lost on the Norman Atlantic but the 51-year-old has not thrown in the towel.

“In a way this adventure was the best thing that ever happened to him,” Gerhard Rettenegger, an Austrian journalist and close friend of Schrumpf, tells Kathimerini, as the latter prefers not to discuss the ordeal. “The publicity he got in Austria helped him multiply donations. Before the accident, Help for Greece was a small organization known by very few people. Now it has become so famous that a company even donated a new van.”

Schrumpf returned to Greece with his new van loaded with medicine and baby food, this time making a delivery to the SOS Children’s Village in Vari, south of Athens. His arrival was met with enthusiasm by the children and staff alike; he has already helped the association on several occasions. In a symbolic gesture of thanks, the community held a special lunch for him, followed by a tour of the facility, where the children gave him gifts they had made.

SOS Children’s Villages are one of the main recipients of Help for Greece aid. Schrumpf himself grew up in such a facility, spending 15 years of his childhood at an SOS Village on the outskirts of Salzburg.

Schrumpf is a doer and has succeeded in almost everything he has set his mind on. Most of his career was spent selling office supplies but a report on Austrian television about the plight of crisis-hit Greeks had a huge impact on him.

“It was a shock for Erwin,” says Rettenegger. “He felt that he couldn’t stand by doing nothing. ‘Greece needs our help,’ he said to me. ‘So I’ll help.’ That was more or less how it all started and, since he was a great salesman, he had no problem convincing pharmaceutical companies in Austria, Germany and now in Switzerland to contribute to the cause.”

Help for Greece conducted its first mission in January 2013 and it was to Elpis. Schrumpf has maintained close ties with the hospital’s director, Theodoros Giannaros, ever since. As the Austrian writes on the organization’s website ( “Some hospitals disregard budget constraints and treat people who can’t otherwise afford medical care. One of these is Elpis, the oldest hospital in Athens. But the situation there is becoming more critical with every day that passes; supplies of medicines and medical equipment are completely inadequate. Emergency surgeries need to be postponed because of shortages in anesthetic and pain drugs. Doctors, nurses and the hospital director, Theodoros Giannaros, often operate off the clock, with patients’ relatives personally supplying the necessary drugs. So Elpis lives up to its name, which means hope. But this and other hospitals like it need our support in their hour of need.”

“Hospitals will often give him lists of medicines and other materials they need,” says Rettenegger. “Elpis, for example, didn’t have IV cannulas! Erwin made sure to transport boxes of them on his next trip.”

The Help for Greece program depends on donations mainly from Austrians but also from other Northern Europeans. Nevertheless, most of the expenses are covered by the members themselves.

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