Monthly Archives: December 2014

A first hand account of a survivor from the Norman Atlantic

Earlier today, I spoke to Andreas Tolaros age 64, a Greek national who was on board the Norman Atlantic.

He kindly gave me 20 minutes of his time to talk about his experience of what happened on the boat and how the disaster unfolded. Despite his ordeal, he was courteous, calm, and even made a joke or two.

If you would like to use extracts of this interview, you are free to do so as long as correct accreditation is given. This is what he said:

What was your reason for going on this journey? Were you going for work or a holiday?

This was a holiday trip. I was with a friend, taking the car up to Austria.

 

When did you get the first indication that something was wrong?

I woke up around 03:00 am, and sensed a funny smell in the cabin. I had to open the door and then I saw smoke in the alley, so I started  warning the people and shouting that there was a fire. I woke up my friend, took a few belongings and went up to the deck, where quite a few people were already aware of the situation, mainly the people who weren’t sleeping in cabins but spent the night in the lounge area.

 

Could you tell me what type of vessel it was? I’ve heard that the Norman Atlantic doesn’t usually serve this route, that it’s primarily a vehicle carrier. Some people have said that it was quite a shabby boat. What was the impression that you had of it?

It is. Actually our tickets were with the Hellenic Spirit, a proper ferryboat  which is able to carry a certain number of trucks and cars, and passengers as well. But when we got to Patras (this is the port where the journey started from) we saw this boat which was a fairly old looking boat. I’ve been told that it’s been converted to be able to carry passengers as well. Cabins were very very small, and it really gave me the impression that something is going wrong, something is not right, which was confirmed when the problem occurred. Nothing was functioning, the alarm system did not function, the emergency equipment was inadequate, lifeboats didn’t work.

 

Did you get any kind of assistance from the crew? I’ve heard that things were very chaotic and that the crew were not assisting. Was that your experience as well?

The crew to start with was mixed, Greeks and Italians. That was actually a problem. When the fire started, of course there was a  panic. Some Greek crew members were trying to help. The second officer and some staff from the restaurant, they tried to manage the panic, though to be honest there wasn’t much panic.

People were mainly quite calm. I have to say that the truck drivers really helped the people to stay calm. We all stayed calm till the end. I left the boat on Sunday at 23:00, I and my friend were rescued by the helicopter. People were waiting. Assistance from the crew was adequate.

 

Talking about the rescue operation:

The rescue operation started late, I don’t know why. There have been rumours that the captain did not inform the authorities early enough, so the rescue effort started quite late. Yes the weather conditions were terrible, but mainly we the passengers were trying to solve the problem ourselves.

 

Were you all gathered on the outer decks?

Yes.

 

Was there any part of the inside which was usable?

Not at all. In a few hours, everything was on fire.

 

How did you cope, because it was extremely cold and raining?

Well, we used the penguin method let’s say. We just gathered all together, those who were dressed heavily were protecting the rest, and we were shifting and changing around, 20 people together to keep our bodies warm as much as we could. We were trying to find places that were away from the fire and away from smoke, gather all together there and warm up our bodies. The cold was tremendous. I mean, there were people with T-shirts on.

 

Did you have any supplies on board at this point?

Not at all. What supplies? Nothing, nothing. I was without water and food for 18 hours. I eventually just found a bottle thrown on the floor and I ate half a banana which I picked up from the floor, in order to put some nutrition in my body. That was it, there was nothing.

 

Were you airlifted off by a Greek or Italian helicopter?

Italian. I’ve heard that the ship was under the Italian jurisdiction. Twice there were two Greek helicopters, and then they went back to Corfu for refueling, but the bad weather went towards Corfu so they couldn’t take off again. Mainly the rescue was from the Italian air force.

I don’t know if you’ve managed to see any of the accounts of the other passengers. The Greek soprano Dimitra Theodosiou gave quite a harrowing account of the rescue, saying it was very chaotic, there was pushing and shoving by people to be saved first. Her words were that there were a lot of foreigners on the boat shoving and pushing to the front of the queue who didn’t give priority to women and children, is that something you saw?

Somehow they used the right top deck on the boat as the helicopter rescue point. There was a Greek and an Italian crew which was somehow organising the evacuation. The evacuation started first with the children and women. I didn’t notice those scenes, maybe I was under such stress that I didn’t notice. People say that they were evacuating the Italians. Yes, there were Italians speaking Italian to the rescuers there, well, to be honest under those  circumstances, I would say that in my view things were calm. I expected it to be worse. The Greeks were very, very calm.

[side note: Ms Theodosiou’s account, located here, talks about Turks and Arabs pushing and shoving her out of the way several times. How she was sure of their nationalities at that time, I don’t know. I give no endorsement of her comments, just presenting what she said]

So your personal experience was that people were not shoving and pushing others out of the way to get their turn sooner?

No. I wouldn’t say that. I’ve seen more shoving and pushing in a bank actually! Under those circumstances, things were moving okay. Everybody wants to save their life, but not in an ugly way. It was under control up to the moment that I left, because the evacuation continued all night long.

What kind of injuries did you witness? When the passengers were disembarked at Bari, some people looked very battered, there was an elderly gentleman with bandages on his feet which the commentators said were from burns.

That I think happened on Monday, because the sea was calmer so they changed the evacuation. They started disembarking people through a rope ladder from the side of the ship. Because of the winds there were some minor accidents happening there. Some people fell off into the boats, some fell into the water and were rescued.

The whole time I was up on the deck, watching the evacuation by helicopter, nothing happened then.

 

Describing what happened once they were evacuated:

We were taken to the airbase in Lecce, Italy, and from there we received aid. We were offered clothes from the military, and then we were transferred to the hospital there.

 

How did you get back to Athens?

By the Hellenic air force. That was on Monday night, we took off from Lecce to Bari and from Bari we took off around 20:00 and got to Athens around 22:00.

 

As you said the truck drivers helped quite a lot. We’ve been hearing them speak on Greek TV saying that they’re worried about their colleagues who might have slept in their truck cabins. Did you hear anything like that around you?

Yes I did. Because some of the truck drivers, yes they do that. I presume they buy the cheapest ticket, and rather than sleeping on a chair, on those big trucks they have their own bed there. They only use the cabins for taking a shower and go and sleep in their vehicles. I’ve heard that some of them preferred to sleep in their cars rather than sleeping in those shitty rooms.

The rooms were very, very small.  The whole ship looked like – this is a ship to transport cars, but why don’t we squeeze in a couple of rooms, add a bar and a kind of restaurant, and convert it into a cruise ship.

 

Is there any other information you would like to add about your experience?

As I said, as a survivor, I thank the Greek and Italian air force, which really looked after us, and the courage and the help that the truck drivers managed to give to all the passengers. The rest, apart from one or two Greeks from the crew that tried to help the passengers, the rest was a disaster.

 

Thank you so much for your time, I wish you a speedy recovery and a happy new year.

I am going to have a happy new year, be sure of that!

* UPDATE*: Mr Tolaros wants to personally thank the Italian air force crew that rescued him and has requested help in tracking them down. They are pictured below (Mr Tolaros is the gentleman in the middle also dressed in army clothes provided from the air base) If anyone can help identify this crew, please email me at omaira.gill@gmail.com so that Mr Tolaros can extend his thanks.

Mr Tolaros right in the centre of the crew that saved him

Mr Tolaros right in the centre of the crew that saved him

Mr Tolaros second from right, smiling, with the Italian crew that saved him

Mr Tolaros third from right, smiling, with the Italian crew that saved him

Update 2: Mr Tolaros has found the pilot of the helicopter that saved him. I think in the end he tracked him down without my help, but thanks to everyone who helped spread the word.

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What the Serial Podcasts say about journalism in the digital age

It’s a lot easier to get into university to study journalism than it is to get into university to study law.

This is what I’ve been thinking as I listened to the Serial podcasts the last two weeks. Luckily for me, I only discovered that the podcasts, currently the most popular podcast in history, existed about two weeks ago when I read a piece about it in the Guardian, so I didn’t have to wait three months to reach today’s final episode.

I started to listen. It was the audible equivalent of standing by the fridge at 1 am shoveling chocolate cake into my face. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t stop. I was addicted, and the more the approach to the podcast disturbed me, the more I was unable to stop listening.

The Serial podcast bothered me on more than one level. For those of you who don’t know, it goes over the murder of Hae Min Lee on 13 January 1999. The ex-boyfriend was eventually convicted and got life, though admittedly even to a lay person the case was not put together well, and Adnan Syed’s lawyer was disbarred soon after.

People keep saying what a good podcast it is. What does that mean, exactly? While the subject matter has been interesting, let’s not forget how utterly sad it is at the same time, and in my opinion it has been badly executed.

First, it’s what I consider some pretty messy journalism. Maybe they teach journalism differently in the US, but I remember a particularly rabid professor, whose classes we all dreaded at Cardiff University, who insisted that you should never be a part of a story. There is no ‘I, me’ etc. That stayed with me unless I’m writing a personal column, or of course, this blog.

With all due respect to Sarah Koenig, maybe she never thought Serial would take off the way it did. I know from my own experience that I tend to be a little sloppy when I’m writing something I don’t think a lot of people will read. The one post on this blog that went viral was littered with mistakes, because I knocked it out, sent it into the internet and didn’t think any more of it until it clocked nearly 80,000 views. I have many other examples of less-than stellar efforts on my part (you could say my entire career in journalism is quite less than supernova levels, which is why my laptop is committing suicide, but that’s another story).

Aren’t we, as journalists, supposed to remain impartial witnesses? It disturbed me that Koenig seemed to so easily take sides. But there were other things that upset me. Here is a terribly sad story, the loss of a brilliant, intelligent, beautiful, funny and kind young woman, a case of possible miscarriage of justice, more than one family torn apart, presented as entertainment. We’re invited to guess along about who did it, and Reddit users have taken this gauntlet and run with it to freak-show proportions.

Next for me is the issue of libel. So many years down the line, people’s names have been dragged up again, which would be fine except that we live in a digital age. Not only have avid fans gone on and published ‘tours’ of the key places involved in the murder, they have tracked down people who took part in the podcast. Creepy doesn’t even cover it. Then there are the Reddit theories, which start placing blame on nearly everyone.

I’m not going to act like I was above it, I’ve also joined in, listening and thinking way too much about it, changing my mind every week about guilt or innocence. There is an episode talking about the case where potential jury members are asked to tell the judge why they should be excused from jury duty on the grounds of inability to remain impartial, and I caught myself thinking ‘I’d have had to do that, being a Pakistani muslim, I’d have had to get myself excused too.’ It’s sad times when we live in a culture where absolutely everything can be packaged up and sold as entertainment.

Whatever happened and wherever the case may go next, this was not journalism. This was entertainment, and we were all hooked. A sad reflection on us. It was also an irritating podcast to listen to at times, and I kept catching myself thinking “The BBC wouldn’t have done it this way.” There was so much pointless banter in between, about shrimp sales, giggling over retracing routes, that I would thinking that considering the gravity of what they were investigating, why weren’t they a little more respectful? The whole Valley girl way of talking, littered with ‘likes’, ‘OMGs’, ‘rights?’, the cadence of sentences rising at the end into a question, I didn’t think grown women talked like that.

I listened to the last episode today. Do I think the person currently doing time is guilty or not? For what it’s worth, here’s what I think.

I don’t care.

Because at the end of the day, the fact remains that a wonderful human being died in terrifying circumstances. All that light, all the promise, the liveliness of her words from her diary, which I don’t know why we were read extracts from, snuffed out. Hae Min Lee was an example of a great person, someone who would have grown up to make a real contribution to the world around her. In the last episode we learn that she made such an impact on her final boyfriend who she dated for only 13 days before her disappearance that he says she changed him forever.

She had the assertiveness and self respect to leave a culturally doomed relationship at just age 17. I know grown women in relationships that are dead-ends, where the other half’s family don’t even know they exist, or refuse to acknowledge they exist, sometimes even after marriage and children. Or women who are happy to accept whatever little shreds of love are thrown their way, existing on the sidelines in contrast to the other, official, culturally approved wife. Here was a teenager who decided she was worth more, and respect to her for considering her own worth in that way.

Millions of people now know her name, and sit picking apart the details of her death over their dinner. Yes, really. How offensive to this young woman’s memory and to her family.

If anything should be learned from Serial, it’s that some territory is sacred. Koenig is not a lawyer, she is a journalist, and by her own admission, she isn’t even a crime reporter or investigative journalist. Given this, I doubt she should have gone trawling through this story, or at least approached it differently.

I got the feeling today that Koenig felt the criticism about her taking sides had caught up with her, and she tried to be a bit more vague in her ending.

Next week we’ll have all moved on to something else, but Hae Min Lee’s family is still missing a beloved daughter. The Innocence Project is now involved, and I really hope that they will finally be able to lay this case to rest. That’s their job after all, and what they were trained for.

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