When the Tsonas family boarded a Greek ferry for a vacation, they never dreamt they would end up fighting for their lives
The Tsonas family had one chance to get off a burning passenger ferry in the middle of the Adriatic Sea – a small orange lifeboat.
I HAVE TO SAVE MY FAMILY! The thought looped around and around as Natasa Tsonas stared at the burning wreckage. She stared at her two sons, Dimitri, 14, and Sempastian, 11, who were shocked into silence; she stared at the panic on her husband Nassos’s face. But she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being choked. And she couldn’t move, either. Frozen, Natasa stood on the upper deck of the ship she’d boarded four hours earlier and braced for an explosion.
It was pitch-black on the top level of the Norman Atlantic, the kind of middle-of-the-night darkness where it’s impossible to make out anything more than a metre away. All black, save for the balls of fire blasted across the sky by the cold wind. Flames rained down around Natasa, her family and the hundreds of people who were screaming, crying and shoving their way to the top of the ship – and, they hoped, to safety. Natasa recalled the movie Titanic, in which children were rescued first and adults were governed by principles, even when faced with death. But that night – December 28, 2014 – she saw only chaos. The car ferry transporting her family from Igoumenitsa, Greece, to Ancona, Italy, was burning up in the middle of the Adriatic Sea with 499 people on board, and it was utter pandemonium.
THOUGH NATASA WAS BORN and raised in Toronto, Canada, she began spending summers visiting friends and their families on Corfu once she turned 17. It was during her fourth sojourn on the Greek island that she met Nassos Tsonas. She initially brushed off his advances, but his persistence eventually won her over (it didn’t hurt that he was tall, dark and handsome). When Natasa returned the next year, they became a couple, and her departure at the end of that summer was painful.
Within nine months, Natasa had mapped out a different future for herself. She would leave school – she was in her final year of an international relations degree at the University of Toronto – and move to Greece to be with Nassos. It sounded crazy, even to her, but it felt right. Natasa expected her parents to lock her in her room; instead, her mother said, “If this is what’s going to make you happy, go and try it.” Two weeks after that, she was on a plane back to the island.
Twenty-one years later, the couple and their two sons were climbing aboard an Anek Lines ferry bound for Italy, just after midnight. The crossing was familiar – the Tsonases make the
trip each year to meet with suppliers or pick up inventory for the leatherclothing store they co-own. They had sprung for the pricier of the two ship lines that travel from Corfu, spending € 800 for a family cabin and to store their car below deck, but were switched to the Norman Atlantic, a lesser vessel.
The Tsonases had planned the trip after much consideration. The previous month, at home on Corfu, Natasa’s best friend had died of cancer. Mourning the loss, Natasa and Nassos hadn’t made any plans for their boys’ Christmas vacation. In the past, they’d used those two weeks to take holidays abroad, but this year they couldn’t muster the energy to plan an elaborate trip. Still, as the break drew closer, the idea of getting away had seemed more enticing.
Nassos had suggested travelling to Baden- Baden, in Germany, where they’d be able to swim in hot springs and relax at a spa. So they’d take the ferry to Ancona and from there, fly to Baden-Baden.
Shortly after boarding, the group tucked in for the night. Four hours later, at 5.30am, Nassos and Natasa were awoken by a vague announcement over the ship’s speakers. When Nassos stepped into the hallway to see what was going on, fellow passengers alerted him to the fire. He rushed back to tell his wife. “Natasa, we’re going outside,” he said. She brushed it off: “If it was anything serious, we would have been told.” But Nassos insisted, so Natasa woke up their sons. At the last minute, she decided to grab her purse. “If Mom’s going to save anything, it’s going to be her cigarettes,”
Sempastian joked. It was also where she kept the family’s passports.
The smell of smoke filled the corridor outside their cabin, and the family was swept up in the melee – hundreds of people were moving toward the ferry’s upper deck. “Let’s go to the top of the ship, so at least if it goes down, we’ll be able to swim,” Nassos said.
It was then that the severity of their situation finally registered: they were on a boat in the middle of a wild sea in the dead of night, and that boat was on fire. “I’m calling my parents,” Nassos said to his wife. “You’re going to make them sick,” Natasa replied. Her husband looked at her. “It might be the last phone call I ever make.” Their sons, wide-eyed and tearful, overheard his quiet words. “Mumma, what can we do?” Dimitri asked softly. Pray, she said, reminding them of Saint Spyridon, the patron saint of Corfu and performer of miracles. Natasa and Nassos pulled their sons into a hug and told them they loved them.
From where they stood, the family could see a single lifeboat and a long line of passengers waiting to jump on board. Natasa watched, horrified, as a woman ran for the boat, lost her footing and plummeted off the edge, into the churning sea. Suddenly, flames shot up through two holes in the top deck. The queue scattered and more than 50 people broke away, running from the fire and straight toward them. “We’re going to get trampled!” Natasa screamed. “Move back!”
Once the horde had passed, Nassos saw an opening. He grabbed his wife and sons, pulled them through the flames and sent them over the railing onto the small orange lifeboat – their one shot at getting off the ship. Minutes later, the vessel was full and heading into the water to fend for itself. The family had put their lives in the hands of strangers whose faces they couldn’t even make out in the darkness.
NATASA LIFTED HER HEAD from between her knees and wiped her mouth. The lifeboat bucked, sending a violent jolt through the people who sat hip to hip on its metal benches. Partially sheltered by a plastic cover from the furious swells, passengers threw up as the boat lurched through the night.
It was still so dark that Natasa couldn’t see past Sempastian, huddled across the aisle less than a metre away. She was wedged in between
THE LIFEBOAT WAS
MEANT TO BE THEIR ROUTE TO SAFETY, BUT THEY WEREN’T SURE THEY’D MAKE
IT OUT ALIVE
Nassos and Dimitri, vomit puddled around their feet. No-one spoke.
The sky began to brighten shortly after 7am, an hour or so after the lifeboat had been lowered into the water. For two more hours, the small craft rose and fell, jerking so wildly that Natasa felt like she was on a roller coaster without a restraining device – but with both a stomach flu and a hangover, multiplied by 100. Her legs soon became webbed with cuts from banging against the benches. Lightning cracked and water sloshed around, soaking the travellers. This was meant to be their route to safety, but in that moment, they weren’t sure they would make it off the sea alive.
“There’s a boat! We’re going to be saved!” a fellow passenger yelled at around 9.30am. Natasa looked around, reassured by the presence of a bearded priest sitting near her family. The lifeboat soon knocked against the side of the Spirit of Piraeus, a freight ship from Singapore that had answered the Norman Atlantic’s distress call.
Within minutes, men aboard the freighter tossed down spools of thick black rope to the lifeboat below, where crew members and passengers used the cords to secure their craft to the cargo ship. After the vessels were tied together, the Piraeus dropped a long, narrow rope ladder. A few men had begun the slow haul up, swinging precariously in the wind, when the lines tying the lifeboat to its rescuer snapped, sending the smaller craft further back into the waves and perilously close to the ship’s propeller.
Once the boat was resecured with new ropes, it was the Tsonases’s turn. Natasa knew she had to send her sons up the ladder – to safety or to die. Dimitri would go first, in case one of his parents needed to assist him. As Natasa watched Dimitri climb the ladder, one slippery rung at a time, she thought, for the first time, that maybe they were at the end of their ordeal. The teenager made the climb, a threeminute feat that, for his parents, felt like forever. Natasa followed, and then Sempastian. For Nassos, watching his younger son ascend was agonising. “If he didn’t succeed, I was ready to jump after him, to do whatever I could.” Not long after Sempastian reached the top, the ropes snapped again, separating Nassos from his family for the halfhour it took the crew to reattach the lines. He eventually scaled the ladder and joined Natasa and their sons. In all, 49 passengers made it onto the freighter.
THE TSONASES STRIPPED OFF THEIR CLOTHES AND HUDDLED TOGETHER, WRAPPED ONLY IN TOWELS AND SHEETS
In a small cabin on the Spirit of Piraeus, the Tsonases stripped off their clothes and huddled together, wrapped only in hand towels and sheets for warmth. After the boys fell asleep, Natasa and Nassos went to find food, returning with bowls of rice. They waited for nearly 12 hours while the ship stayed in the ferry’s vicinity, unable to leave while the SOS call was still out. Around midnight on December 29, a crew member arrived at their door: it was finally time to go to shore. The family put their damp clothes back on and steadied themselves. It had been nearly 24 hours since they’d felt anything but sheer panic.
AS NATASA DESCENDED the final steps off the boat, now docked at the Italian city of Bari, she began to cry
for the first time since leaving home. Thank God, she thought, shaking as she felt solid ground beneath her feet. A receiving line of emergency workers, vibrating with purpose, awaited the passengers filing off the ship. Nassos, Dimitri and Sempastian didn’t need medical attention, but Natasa knew her legs – which were smeared with dried blood – would benefit from the care of an EMT. But hours before, she’d urinated on herself, overwhelmed when her husband had completed the treacherous climb up the rope ladder, and she didn’t want anyone to know.
That night, exhausted after hours spent providing statements to the police, Natasa and 30 or so survivors climbed aboard a bus to the airport. The Tsonases stayed overnight in
Athens before returning to Corfu.
After Natasa and her family finally arrived home, she worried most about her sensitive eldest son, Dimitri. But it was Sempastian who was afraid to leave the house in the weeks that followed. He was terrified to go to school, to go anywhere. In February 2015, two months after the sinking of the Norman Atlantic, the family was booked on a ferry trip. But the night before they were to leave, Nassos panicked: the sky was an ominous grey and the water was rough. The family wasn’t going anywhere.
The next month, Natasa, Nassos and their sons walked onto a ferry – Dimitri had to write exams in Ioannina, a city on the mainland. They sat whiteknuckled as two hours ticked by. The voyage went smoothly.
As the months march forward, it gets a bit easier for the family to leave home. “I always thought travelling by ship was the safest way, but it’s not that simple,” says Natasa. “Someone told me ships aren’t required to have enough places in a lifeboat for the number of passengers. If that’s the case, I’ve been lying to myself all this time.” As for Nassos, there’s not a day that he doesn’t think about that night. It is estimated that at least 28 people died on the Norman Atlantic. Those rescued were picked up in an international operation involving Italian and Greek ships and helicopters. While the shipping line put the manifest at 475 passengers, the prosecutor investigating the tragedy later suggested up to 500 people had been on board. The evacuation was ill managed, but there were heroes amid the chaos, including Ilia Kartozia, a Georgian priest who calmed evacuees and gave up his seat on a lifeboat for a woman and her child. He died in a fall from the ferry, his actions recognised in posthumous bravery awards.
En route to Italy in December 2014, the Norman Atlantic went up in flames
The Tsonases, on the freighter that eventually carried them to safety