Everyone on board the cruise ship Oceanos was safe and accounted for Monday, but survivors angrily accused the captain of taking one of the first rescue helicopters to safety and leaving them on board the sinking liner.
“We had to take over the ship,” said Terry Lester, who worked as a comedian on the ship. “If it hadn’t been for the entertainers, a lot of people would have drowned.”
The ship’s entertainers said they guided rescue vessels by radio after Greek Capt. Yiannis Avranas abandoned the bridge, leaving passengers--including women, children, aged and the infirm--to their fate in a rough sea.
The 571 people aboard the ship were rescued in a dramatic operation Sunday that was completed only 90 minutes before the ship sank a mile from South Africa’s Indian Ocean coast near the village of Coffee Bay.
Passengers praised rescue efforts by the South African military and tour company officials aboard the ship but expressed outrage over the behavior of captain and the crew.
“It was disgusting,” said Julian Russell, 29, a Briton working on the ship as a magician. “The captain, safety officer and other senior crew got off as quickly as they could, so there was nobody to show us what to do during the rescue.”
Crew members took the ship’s only two motorized lifeboats, passengers said, leaving tourists to try to launch regular lifeboats. Also, many complained that no announcements were made during the 12-hour ordeal.
“They left us in the lurch,” passenger Kevin Ellis said of the crew. “They knew the ship was going to sink and didn’t say a thing.”
Passengers said Russell and his fellow entertainers took charge, guiding them to the helicopter winches that hoisted about 170 people aboard the choppers in a dangerous mercy mission.
Musician Moss Hills, 35, spent hours on the sharply listing deck helping elderly passengers into wildly swaying helicopter harnesses.
“There were so many times we thought the ship was going over,” Hills said. “We were hanging on for dear life.”
He said the captain was the second person lifted off by helicopter. Other passengers said that of the 16 people aboard the first helicopter, 11 were ship’s officers.
In Athens, the ship’s owners defended the crew’s conduct.
“The fact that the operation was so successful, with all on board saved, proves that the rescue plan was the correct one,” said Alevizos Klaoudatos, spokesman for Epirotiki Lines S.A., in a statement.
Capt. Avranas defended his decision to leave the ship.
“I don’t care what these people say about me,” the captain told reporters Sunday night. “I am separated from my family, who were rescued by one of the other ships, and I have lost my own ship. What more can they want?”
While admitting to leaving “quite a few” people on board, he said he went to supervise operations from ashore.
“When I order ‘Abandon ship,’ it doesn’t matter what time I leave,” Avranas said in a separate interview with ABC-TV. “Abandon is for everybody. If some people like to stay, they can stay.”
Hills, the musician, said he first realized the ship was in trouble when crew members in life jackets stormed up from the engine room Saturday night.
“We didn’t know what was going on. . . . There were no announcements, no sirens, nothing,” he said.
Last off the ship was Robin Boltman, a comedian and magician who manned the radio on the bridge to coordinate rescue efforts.
“They were bloody heroes,” one passenger said of the entertainers.
Rescuers said Monday that the search for survivors had ended since all aboard had been accounted for.
“The last remaining crew member missing from the Oceanos has been located, and the search for survivors has been called off,” said Ian Hunter, managing director of the tour operators who chartered the ship for a season of Indian Ocean cruises.
“You will agree that a miracle has happened here,” Hunter’s colleague Paul Levine told a news conference.
Passing ships picked up about 400 survivors from lifeboats.
South African Transport Minister Piet Welgemoed announced a maritime inquiry into the sinking of the 7,554-ton ship in seas with 24-foot waves.
The Oceanos, carrying mostly South African passengers, left East London on Saturday for Durban and began taking on water Saturday night.
Military officials said they did not know why the ship sank but said its proximity to the coast suggested that it may have hit a reef off the dangerous “Wild Coast.” Avranas said he believed that a piston in the engine room broke, knocking a hole in the hull.
Among people familiar with maritime traditions, Avranas’ behavior was viewed as gross neglect of his primary responsibility, the safety of his passengers and crew.
Frank O. Braynard, a maritime historian and curator of the American Merchant Marine Museum at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at King’s Point, N.Y., called the decision of the captain to leave the ship “completely wrong.”
“There’s no excuse. It’s cowardice of the first order,” Braynard said.
The captain is not expected to go down with the ship but is expected to be the last to leave, Braynard said.
“It’s very much an accepted tradition that the captain is responsible for the lives of everyone on board,” he said.