The day my life changed

8th July 2011 at 01:00
The children were screaming, but they were helping each other as the ship went down

One of the things that hit me when I realised our cruise ship was sinking was the children's faces. Their features crumpled in and they just looked so old - like geriatric patients. These old, old children.

It was October 1988, our first day on the educational cruise ship Jupiter, visiting the Greek islands. I was the teacher in charge. Our children - 16 girls and one boy, all secondary pupils - had gone down to the dining room. The adults were unpacking in their cabins, exploring the boat. I was walking on deck.

It was dark when we left Piraeus harbour. Then, from out of the darkness, came a huge ship. It looked like a block of flats. There was a terrible grinding noise, and the ship started to shudder. The prow of the other boat went into the dining room, leaving a hole in our ship that was 36 feet high and 12 feet wide.

I thought we had just been scraped or damaged slightly. I was thinking: "If there's a delay, I'll have to call all the parents." Then the ship started to list.

Children were coming up from the dining room and down from above: 391 in total. Yes, they were screaming, but they were helping each other, holding on to each other, encouraging each other to move onto the rescue boats. I was at the bottom of the stairs, saying: "Don't rush." I remember one stupid thing I said: "Don't push, or you'll have to go to the back." It's just one of those things teachers say.

Within 40 minutes, we had reached a list of 80 degrees. There were children jumping into the sea, sliding down the side of the ship.

Suddenly everything changed angles. What I had been holding onto wasn't horizontal - it was vertical. Then we started going down. It fell absolutely silent - as though I was in a cocoon of silence. Other people say there was lots of noise, lots of screaming. But I just remember silence.

I had to wait until the water came up to my shoulders before I could swim away. I remember thinking: "Well, it's been quite a good life." And: "At least I can swim."

I was lucky: there was no suction or huge waves where I was. But I knew I had to swim away fast. I looked back, and I could see the underside of the ship above the waves. And suddenly it went down.

Then the oil started coming out. And debris - huge islands of it, all mangled up. It meshes around you and pushes you underwater. I saw one child near me, screaming that she couldn't swim, and I swore at her. I said she bloody well could swim, and she grabbed some wood and dog-paddled off.

I can't tell how long I was in the water - probably 20 minutes. Then a pilot boat pulled me up. We went round and round, looking for survivors for a long time.

We were covered in oil, dripping water everywhere. Some of the children were almost catatonic, huddled in the foetal position under blankets. For several hours, there were children and adults missing from my group. Eventually, they all appeared.

What we saw was burnt into our minds. You couldn't sleep because of the nightmares. Any loud noise or screech of metal, you'd be afraid something terrible would happen. Two of my colleagues had to retire on health grounds.

Two years later, we took a group on the same cruise. We found a bit of private deck, said some prayers and dropped flowers overboard. We thought the ghost would be laid to rest. But it wasn't.

I do go on ships now, but I can't look at the sea for more than 10 or 15 minutes before I start to see debris. Still, you can always look at the land.

Mary Campion was a history and RE teacher and head of house at Cator Park School, in Beckenham. Four people died in the Jupiter cruise ship disaster. Ms Campion was speaking to Adi Bloom


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today