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Cruise operator: Human error sunk ship

Story Highlights

• Operator of sunken Greek cruise ship says human error was to blame
• More than 1,500 passengers and crew evacuated; 2 French tourists missing
• Oil from ship is being contained, says cleanup operation leader
• Ship is lying in sea-filled crater at depth of 97 meters, maritime experts say
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ATHENS, Greece -- The operator of a Greek cruise ship that sank off the Aegean island of Santorini, leaving two people missing, has said human error was to blame.

The Sea Diamond was carrying 1,156 passengers, mostly Americans, and 391 crew members and was trying to dock at Santorini's port when it slammed into a volcanic reef last Thursday and sank 15 hours later.

An unmanned submarine is searching the sunken ship for a missing French tourist and his daughter.

"The incident was a result of human error -- but so are 75 percent of all accidents at sea," Giorgos Koubenis, a representative of Cypriot-based Louis Cruise Lines, told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

It was the company's first comment on the probable cause of the accident.

The captain and five other crew members have been charged with negligence.

Meanwhile Greek maritime officials were trying to contain as much as 100 tons of oil from the ship, according to local officials.

"The oil is continuing to leak from the vessel. ... The situation is being contained in the present conditions," said Vassilis Mamaloukas, who is leading the cleanup operation for private Greek contractor Environmental Protection Engineering SA.

An unmanned submersible was deployed Tuesday as the first step toward emptying the cruise ship's fuel tanks. The submersible also was expected to check for the bodies of two missing French nationals believed to have drowned, and search for the vessel's voyage data recorder, the Merchant Marine Ministry said Tuesday.

"Our priority is to pump the oil from the source of the leak, because it is difficult to control oil from a leak from such a depth," Mamaloukas said. "If the weather conditions are not favorable, we may lose that control."

The Greek-flagged Sea Diamond is lying on its starboard side at a depth of about 97 meters (320 feet) in a sea-filled crater created by a volcanic eruption 3,200 years ago, maritime experts said.

The submarine will photograph the vessel's position and determine its stability before Navy divers enter the wreck, Merchant Marine Ministry officials said.

On Saturday, the ship's captain and five other officers were indicted on charges of causing a shipwreck through negligence, breaching international shipping safety regulations and polluting the environment.

All were released pending further investigation.

A public prosecutor has also questioned local boatsmen and officials who assisted in the ship's evacuation, the largest in the region since the September 2000 Express Samina ferry tragedy that killed 80 people near Paros.

In his marathon deposition, the captain blamed strong sea currents for sweeping his vessel into the reef just minutes before docking. Local boatsmen who assisted in the evacuation operation, however, told prosecutors that it took more than 30 minutes to contact the captain for instructions on how to proceed with the evacuation process.

Passengers have complained of an insufficient supply of life vests, little guidance from crew members and steep rope ladders as the means of evacuation.

Louis Cruise Lines insists the Sea Diamond was equipped with all the latest navigation technology.

"To blame us of mishandling the evacuation is wrong," said Stelios Peroulis, one of the liner's engineers. "There were crew members who risked their lives to get passengers out," he told the private ALTER network.


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