HOL­I­DAY DIS­AS­TER

When the Tsonas fam­ily boarded a Greek ferry for a va­ca­tion, they never dreamt they would end up fight­ing for their lives

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - KATHER­INE LAID­LAW

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

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