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School cruise turned into fight for survival

16:22 23 October 2008

DISASTER: Paul Campion’s impression of Jupiter sinking.

DISASTER: Paul Campion’s impression of Jupiter sinking.

On October 21, 1988, 16 girls from Cator Park School, in Beckenham, one boy and 15 teachers were enjoying a cruise on the warm waters of the Mediterranean...

On October 21, 1988, 16 girls from Cator Park School, in Beckenham, one boy and 15 teachers were enjoying a cruise on the warm waters of the Mediterranean when their Greek liner, Jupiter, collided with an Italian freighter off the coast of Piraeus and sank vertically, stern first, in 270 feet of water.

Despite the passage of 20 eventful years, the drama of that night will never be forgotten by the children, now in their 30s, or by the teachers responsible for their safety. It was a night of death, fear, tragedy and many individual acts of bravery, all later brilliantly documented in a book by Mary Campion, leader of the Beckenham party.

This week, Mary told me that the disaster changed some lives for ever and has affected the health of some of the girls, their careers and their desire to travel abroad. They returned home from Greece to find themselves coping with post-traumatic stress (PTS) disorder and the legal complexities of insurance and compensation.

However, they have also set up precedents, helped to change the law of inequality and paved the way to an improved understanding for those who suffer with PTS.

The girls from Cator Park were among 391 schoolchildren, 84 adults and 110 crew and had been aboard the Jupiter for just 15 minutes when the collision occurred. It took 40 minutes for the ship to reach a list of 80 degrees and then sink vertically, stern first, in 270 feet of water. A teacher and a child from another school were drowned, along with two crew members.

Mary remembered how the children acted with great courage. "Terrified, they hung from railings with a sheer incline of deck and an oil-covered sea below them," she said. "Selflessly, they still noticed other passengers in distress and encouraged friends, paralysed with fear, into movement. They used their initiative and saved lives."

Thanks to the skill of the Piraeus seamen who held the rescue boats in position until the last moment and to the dexterity of the passengers, most of whom could swim, all the Beckenham girls were saved. The evacuation of the ship did not begin until the list reached 80 degrees and then the evacuation chain moved at speed.

Mary told me this week that Cator Park School's involvement in the Jupiter disaster did not end with the rescue of the girls and teachers from the Greek waters. "One girl appeared in the High Court of Justice to plead her case for compensation and, we are told, set up a precedent," she said. "All cruise ships are now expected to hold emergency drill for all passengers in port before the ship sails.

"Prior to 1988 the widow and dependent children of a male teacher dying in service received generous financial support. The family of a woman teacher received nothing. The Jupiter disaster helped to change this inequality.

"Three Cator Park teachers offered suggestions to the Ministry of Education while a new directive on Safety on School Visits was prepared. In 1990 Disaster Action was founded as a campaign charity and all its members are survivors or those bereaved from disasters.

"A Cator Park ex-teacher and cruise organiser represents the Jupiter and speaks at conferences on the immediate and long-term effects of a disaster."

Mary's brilliant book, Jupiter's Children, contains actual accounts of the "cruise to disaster" written by the children and teachers. Here are three of many moving accounts.:

Maria Lodge: "I grabbed a low wooden seat near the swimming pool [as the ship listed]. I could not and would not let go. Joanne Weller threatened me that if I didn't let go she would hit me so hard I'd go flying off the ship. She told me to slide down... I didn't want to jump into the sea in case I had an asthma attack... I was grabbed by a little Greek man, my body suspended by the cruise ship and a little tug boat... He quickly pulled me across... I threw my lifejacket onto the Jupiter for other people to use."

Suzanne Golding: "I slid down the hill [into the water] and swam towards a big boat about 50 yards away.

"As the ship went down I saw a hand waving and throw a white hanky onto the water below. I had to swim fast or I would have got sucked down. The crew of the tug boat shouted 'swim faster'..."

Carole Gill: "The water was warm... I turned to look at the ship. It rose vertically and sank in less than two minutes after we dived in. The sea sucked me down. I struggled up.

"Nearby was an Indian girl, splashing her arms, a non-swimmer. I pulled her from the undercurrent... While holding her, seven foot waves came. We both went under, very deep and were separated. I tried to find her under the water... but I couldn't open my eyes in the oil."

Jupiter's Children acted as a catalyst as families discussed, sometimes for the first time, what really happened. Today specialists use it as a resource and sales of the book have raised more than £1,500 for charities.

Mary told me: "This year some of the Cator Park group will meet informally and will remember the 20th anniversary of their survival, their rescuers, school, families, friends, those who died and especially two of our group who have since died.

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