Greek Shipping Minister Resigns, Union to Strike After Ferry Passenger Dies
Greece’s Minister of Shipping and Inland Policy, Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, responsible for oversight of the merchant marine and Coast Guard, announced his resignation today in the continuing outrage of the death of a ferry passenger pushed to his death a week ago in Piraeus. He had only assumed the position on June 26 as part of the new government formed by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. He had been facing mounting pressure compounded by the announcement of the seaman’s union of a 24-hour strike over working conditions.
Last Tuesday, Antonis Kariotis, a day laborer living on Crete attempted to board the Blue Horizon ferry departing Piraeus as the ferry was casting off. As is a common but illegal practice, the ferry still had its stern ramp down and when the passenger got onto the ramp two crewmembers appeared, confronted him, and one of the crewmembers pushed him back on to the dock. The man tried to get on a second time and this time the crewmember pushed him, he fell into the harbor apparently hitting his head possibly on the seawall, and drowned.
Three crewmembers directly observed the incident and it was caught on the bridge camera. The captain proceeded to sail and none of the crewmembers did anything to help the man or stop the ferry. The ferry was ultimately ordered to return to Piraeus and the captain and the three crewmembers are facing charges of manslaughter, but the outrage has continued to build across Greece.
As videos of the incident were widely circulating online and, in the media, the Prime Minister issued statements denouncing the actions of the crew. Varvitsiotis also condemned the actions promising a full investigation. However, he went on TV and during an interview made remarks that were considered sympathetic to the crewmembers and their families as well as the family of the passenger who died. One of his comments was perceived to be calling the passengers the “perpetrator” which caused outrage. Varvitsiotis apologized and said his comments were being misinterpreted.
In his role as minister, he reportedly fired the Piraeus port captain and Coast Guard officers. In his statement today he again highlighted that he took the maximum steps in his legal power.
“I referred the responsible officers of the Coast Guard to the appropriate disciplinary board,” Varvitsiotis said. “The murder of Antonis Kargiotis by members of the Blue Horizon crew has shocked us all. No one can imagine that Greek sailors, violating the age-old rules for the protection of human life at sea, pushed and abandoned an unfortunate youth in the murky waters of the port of Piraeus.”
Late on Friday, four days after the incident the Panhellenic Seaman’s Federation, the union for the crews working on merchant ships, announced it planned a 24-hour strike for September 13 to call attention to working conditions. The union has condemned the actions of the crewmembers on the Blue Horizon and did not link the strike to the incident. They however are saying crews are overworked, ferry schedules are unreasonable creating safety concerns, and that shipping and harbor safety regulations are being implemented improperly.
Port officials have already cited the ferry for departing with its ramp not secured. In addition, the Coast Guard and port police are required under the regulations to be on the dock supervising ferries loading and departing. One person is seen standing on the dock but it is unclear what his role is and if the required supervision was in fact in place.
Political opponents and the public have centered on Varvitsiotis’ comments on TV as the outrage continues. Last week, citizens flocked to the port in Crete where the vessel was preparing to sail blocking it from loading and yelling “murder” at the crew.
Varvitsiotis wrote today on social media, “In the last few days, however, I have become the target of an attack that is acquiring more and more toxic characteristics.” Calling the attacks “personal,” he wrote, “This is why I submitted my resignation to the Prime Minister.”
Age 54, Varvitsiotis was first elected to office in 2000. He has held various positions in the government including roles in foreign affairs and shipping. The prime minister’s office announced he is being succeeded by state deputy Christos Stylianides.