Local News

Families Await Return of Sunken Cruise Ship's Passengers

Posted April 6, 2007 5:20 p.m. EDT
Updated April 6, 2007 7:48 p.m. EDT

— A day after dozens of Triangle-area students and teachers were taken off a Greek cruise ship that hit a reef and slowly sank in the Aegean Sea, parents and other family members anxiously awaited their return to North Carolina.

The 469-foot Sea Diamond struck rocks Thursday in the sea-filled crater formed by a massive volcano eruption 3,500 years ago off the island of Santorini. The ship sank about a quarter-mile off the island's coast, in waters of uneven depth, a few minutes before it was to dock.

The ship's operator, Louis Cruise Lines, said a Frenchman and his teenage daughter were the only passengers missing from the almost 1,200 on board. Greek navy divers searched the sunken wreckage Friday for the bodies of Jean-Christophe Allain, 45, and his 16-year-old daughter, Maud, from Doue-la-Fontaine in western France.

Dozens of students and chaperones from Chapel Hill High School, Middle Creek High School and Southeast Raleigh High School were on the Sea Diamond as part of educational trips over spring break.

All of the students were safely taken off the ship before it sank and taken to Santorini before boarding another ship to return to Athens. But relatives said Friday they wouldn't relax until everyone returned home.

Jennifer Falk, a teacher at Southeast Raleigh High, took her 12-year-old daughter, Maggie, with her on the trip she led for a dozen students.

"This was supposed to be a fun time -- educational time -- and it turns into a nightmare," said Jennifer Falk's husband, David Falk. "I can deal with just about anything, as long as they're safe, you know. Things can be replaced, but my Maggie can't be."

David Falk said he spent much of Thursday and Friday scouring the Internet for information about the cruise ship and watching Web cams from Athens and Santorini to get as close to his wife and daughter as possible.

"I've watched the sun rise over Athens multiple times now," he said Friday. "I don't get a chance to see her, but it makes me feel calmer to see where she is."

Tariq and Isabelle Butt said they haven't been able to call their 16-year-old daughter, Sabrina, who is one of Jennifer Falk's students, because of cell phone problems. But they are relieved to know she is safe.

"We are concerned, but we know the kids are in good hands. So, we're pretty confident everything is OK," Tariq Butt said,

"We're just relieved it was not as serious as it could have been and they're all sale and ready to come back," Isabelle Butt said.

Although most of their luggage wound up at the bottom of the ocean, the Southeast Raleigh High contingent was able to hang onto passports and airline tickets and are scheduled to return to Raleigh Saturday evening.

"In the end, the truth is, what we trust in is God," David Falk said. "For my Easter gifts, I want my darlings to come home. That will be really good.

"I'll probably be crying my eyes out, just holding them."

A group of students from Chapel Hill and Middle Creek high schools is trying to arrange for a flight home but is having difficulty because of an increase in travelers over the Easter holiday. The cruise ship gave them money to buy clothes and toiletries and has put them up in an Athens hotel.

Meanwhile, the captain and five officers of the Sea Diamond were summoned to appear at a public prosecutor's office on the island of Naxos to make a formal declaration of their version of events, which is standard procedure in such incidents. No charges have yet been filed, as it remains very early in the investigation.

State-run NET television said that investigators believed most of the damage to the ship's hull was done before the captain issued the distress signal, when he was trying to maneuver the ship away from the rocks.