Return to Hell harbour

13th November 1998 at 00:00
JUPITER'S CHILDREN. Compiled by Mary Campion. Liverpool University Press Pounds 9.95. Orders: 01235 465500; e-mail: direct.order@marston.co.uk

Ten years ago a ship full of schoolchildren sank off the Greek coast, but,remarkably, only four lives were lost. Jerome Monahan reads the survivors' tales

When I became a teacher at Cator Park school in Beckenham in 1991, the Jupiter disaster, in which a cruise ship full of schoolchildren sank in a Greek harbour, was three years old and its impact was muted.

Ten years on, the legal wrangles surrounding the sinking of the ship in Piraeus harbour in 1988 are over and we can read accounts by the Cator Park contingent - compiled by one of their teachers - of what happened after the Jupiter was hit by a freighter.

Shortly after the party's safe return, Mary Campion, the group leader, collected these 32 personal accounts, mostly by students (some as young as 11). With a historian's instinct, she felt they represented a unique record of a maritime disaster.

The resulting book has a wider audience than those directly touched by the event. The reports give an overall sense of the tragedy as well as being a moving catalogue of terrifying experience and individual courage.

Jupiter's Children has all the drive of a disaster drama. It catches the excitement of the first evening at sea, then growing terror as a bang is heard and the Jupiter lurches and lists. As survivors cling to safety rails another tourist ship passes by, its passengers gaily waving to them and photographing their struggle.

In a fascinating chapter Campion explains why the loss of life was not greater (four died, including a teacher and a 14-year-old pupil whose bodies were never recovered). She believes it was the age of the passengers and their being accustomed to following instructions that saved them.

She also acknowledges the "what-ifs" that have haunted her and other survivors. An hour later, it would have been dark and a lower-deck cinema would have been crammed with children.

The book charts the psychological impact of the disaster. The survivors, adults and children, found themselves prone to panic attacks, loss of concentration, guilt and depression. These are known to be symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder; back in 1988, many survivors mistakenly thought they were going mad.

For me, the most affecting passages are those in which adolescents act "normally" in such abnormal circumstances. Pupils exchange addresses as they haul themselves away from the rising water; one girl records her jealousy of the attention lavished on a younger survivor; a keen reader emulates characters in a Narnia novel by removing her shoes before plunging into the sea.

Jupiter's Children is the description of a violent rite of passage which forced children to put away childish things. As one parent said: "I sent away a child and got back an adult." As a teacher of some of Jupiter's children, I am humbled finally to have grasped the scale of their ordeal and the courage they displayed.

Forty per cent of profits from the book will be donated to charities suggested by the Cator Park contributors

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