Kythira shipwreck, one year later
They were rescued from a raging sea. Now, survivors and relatives of the October 2022 shipwreck are returning to Kythira to thank the residents.
Before arriving on Kythira, Samim Mohammed had only negative feelings.
He wasn’t sure if it was a good thing to return to the island. It is the place where, only a year ago, his brother had perished when the ship he was on with more than 100 other asylum seekers went down.
But Mohammed found the courage to go, and last Sunday the 35-year-old Afghan started the long journey to the island from Finland, where he lives.
A total of 12 people, survivors and relatives of asylum seekers who did not make it that night, were welcomed to the island this week.
They returned wanting to thank those who, on that fateful night, tried for hours to free them from the rocks where they clung, furiously battered by the waves, to give thanks to those who offered them meals, medicine and care in the days which followed.
A year later, they stand, facing the scene of the tragedy, with tears in their eyes.
The ship had started its journey from Izmir on October 2, 2022, with the final destination being the Italian coast.
It is a route that is not widely known, the Route of Calabria. In recent years, it has been increasingly preferred by asylum seekers who set off from Turkish shores for fear of being sent back to Turkey if they land on the Aegean islands in Greece.
Late in the evening of October 5, the ship approached the rocks east of Kythira, in the Diakofti area. Strong winds were blowing, up to 9 on the Beaufort scale, causing the ship to crash against the rocks. The ship took on water and was then destroyed by the crashing waves.
The passengers tried to save themselves. The lights from a nearby ferry, on its scheduled route to the port of Kissamos, were the only thing to illuminate, for a short time, the scene of the shipwreck.
At the same time, the authorities and residents heard voices coming from the rocks, and rushed to the scene. However, it was not easy to distinguish whether the people were dead or alive.
Later, the survivors described to Solomon how they had formed a “shield” on the rocks with their bodies.
In the following days, photos of the crane that was used to rescue dozens of trapped people from the rocks, went viral.
“As soon as I arrived at the site and saw the situation, the height of the rocks and the weather conditions, I thought that the only way to save these people is with mechanical means,” says 24-year-old Dimitris Protopsaltis, who had the idea to use a crane, and operated it, in consultation with the Fire Department.
At least ten people died that night. The number of missing remains unknown. A total of 80 people were rescued, including 18 minors, 55 men and seven women.
The islanders say that if the ship had managed to continue on for a hundred meters further, after the rocky area, none of the passengers would have been in danger, because that’s where one of the island’s calmest beaches is located.
On that night, the survivors were immediately transferred to a primary school in the village of Kastrisianika, which had remained closed in recent years. The residents responded quickly, as they had helped survivors from other shipwrecks in the same year: they set up a makeshift kitchen and pharmacy, a storage area for food and other items, and organized work shifts.
The first relatives of the missing began to arrive on the island. They had traveled from various European countries, where they live, to find out any information and find their loved ones. They got on private boats and followed the shoreline and beaches, in the hope that they find their loved ones, dead or alive.
Ahmad Zobair, 37, traveled from Hungary where he lives. For five days he searched for his missing sister Sonia, 33, who was traveling with her husband, Zaheed, who was rescued.
Zobair is originally from Afghanistan. In recent years he has been working and living with his family in Budapest and recently moved to Frankfurt. It took a few hours to reach Kythira, where he wasted no time renting a small fishing boat, despite the opposition of the authorities.
“Because the Coast Guard wouldn’t let me set off, I had to do it secretly,” he tells Solomon.
During the search, on the sixth day after the shipwreck, Zobair spotted a lifeless body about ten kilometers away from the site, near a large rock. Due to the condition of the body, he could not make an identification.
He notified the authorities, who removed him from the scene, saying that he is not allowed to be there — but he continued to follow the path of the body.
The braces on Sonia’s teeth are the only piece of evidence that could indicate if the body Zobair had located was his sister. Hours later, the autopsy, performed at the Lakonia General Hospital – Molaos Unit, revealed that the body was Sonia’s.
When Zobair was informed about this by Solomon’s journalist, he replied: “I hope it’s my sister. I’m so glad to hear that.” Other relatives, to this day, still do not have an equally clear answer about their missing loved ones.
To express their appreciation to the residents of Kythira, survivors and relatives who had returned to the island, “thank you’s” constantly on their lips, invited islanders to a meal on Thursday, October 5, 2023.
At a memorial service that day, 60-year-old Hatije Ahmadi, a survivor of the wreck, said she owed her life to the people who rushed to help that night: “I’m here today because of you.”
Hailing from Kabul, Ahmadi was traveling with her husband Abdul Rase Ahmadi, 65. “Who will save us here? There is no one here,” were his last words on the ship while it sank.
Ahmadi currently lives in Hamburg with her two children and two sisters. The whole family traveled to Kythira. One person who she especially thanks is the chief of the Kythira Fire Department, fire fighter Spyros Fountoulakis.
Usually, the Fire Department is not responsible for extreme incidents like these. But, due to “the absence of the appropriate rescue means, we resorted to inventing our own means,” Fountoulakis tells Solomon. “We felt it was better to do something risky than to do nothing at all.”
Fire fighters, the coast guard and residents initially tried using a strong rope, which they lowered to the trapped people, instructing them on how to hook themselves to the rope so they could pull them up.
“But because of the crashing waves and the panic, they didn’t understand what we were saying. Most used the rope incorrectly, resulting in only half of them being rescued with the rope and the other half with the crane,” says Fountoulakis.
That evening, using his hiking equipment, Fountoulakis descended from a height of ten meters to reach the trapped people and lend his support.
With the survivors and relatives returning to the island, his feelings are mixed.
“On the one hand, people died, people we couldn’t save. On the other hand, I am happy that 80 people were saved. In such a difficult spot, with such a large vertical rock, and such weather conditions,” he says.
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