Several British schoolchildren are reportedly charging that some crew members jumped overboard in panic before aiding the passengers after the Jupiter of Epirotiki Lines sank when it was rammed by a cargo ship in Pireaus recently.

The 372-passenger vessel, which was carrying 484 British school children, teachers and guardians on a seven-day charter in the eastern Mediterranean, reportedly sank within an hour when the Italian ship sliced a vertical gash in its side shortly after the cruise began around 8 p.m. on Oct. 21.

Capt. Flavia Canunale of the Adige cargo vessel of Italy was being held in Greek custody at presstime on four counts of manslaughter and other charges after two seamen, a 14-year-old schoolgirl and a 41-year-old teacher were missing and presumed dead.

While some of the total crew of 115 reportedly said they quickly jumped overboard to form "human buoys" to protect the passengers, Greek government officials acknowledged that the Greek courts and the Greek Maritime Board were looking into allegations by the schoolchildren during its investigation.

An International Maritime Organization official also said that safety experts from 138 governments would probably discuss both cruise ship and ferry safety at a maritime safety conference in London after 72 passengers were injured in the Jupiter tragedy.

A British maritime official also said that the safety experts currently meeting at the three-week United Nations maritime conference in London would discuss the 1974 Solas (Safety of Life at Sea) regulations.

The American delegation at the IMO talks is expected to call for Solas standards to be made retroactive, thus banning cruise ships built before 1974 or forcing them to be rebuilt.

The standards call for the design of machinery spaces to allow cross-flooding thus avoiding the steep listing of the Jupiter, making evacuation easier.

One Greek maritime official also acknow­ledged that the Greek investigation would study the possibility that the Jupiter sank so quickly because the water tight doors in the engine room weren't legally slammed shut. Epirotiki President Art Lubin said in New York that the 9,000-ton ship sank in less than an hour and that the cruise line had no intentions to salvage the 27-year-old vessel.

The British maritime official asserted that the Jupiter should have remained afloat for a far longer period of time than it did because the gash only effected one of several of the water tight compartments. He noted that most cruise passenger ships can remain afloat for more than an hour even when two of the water tight compartments are severed during a collision.

Maritime officials said that the Jupiter met all the latest international safety rules and held top classification from Det Norske Veritas ship classification society of Norway until 1979 and from Lloyd's of London from 1979 until the present. Lubin said that the Jupiter was on its last sailing of the season when the accident occurred and Epirotiki had no further bookings because the ship was going to be laid up for the winter.

"The ship is sitting in about 150 foot of water in the harbor at Pireaus and it will probably stay there unless some people try to salvage it for insurance purposes because Epirotiki has no plans to move it," Lubin said. "I think the real story here is the 'heroic rescue' by the crew that saved many, many lives."

Lubin said it was "a miracle" that almost all the 600 passengers and crew were saved.

500 Feared Drowned in Philippines

The sinking of the Jupiter coincided with the sinking of the 2,855-ton passenger/freighter Dona Marilyn when a typhoon swept over the Philippines. At press time, it is feared that 500 passengers and crew members have drowned.

The 22-year old Dona Marilyn was built in Japan and operated by Sulpicio Lines of the Philippines. Last year another of the company's ships sank after a collision, with a loss of life of more than 3,000, making it one of the worst maritime disasters ever.

In March of 1987, 193 lives were lost when the 7,900-ton ferry Herald of Free Enterprise capsized in heavy seas off Zebrugge, Netherlands.

Last March, a fire aboard Sea Escape's Scandinavian Star forced evacuation of passengers, while no one sustained serious injury.

Excellent Track Record

While the cruise industry operating in North America enjoys an excellent track record, at the recent International Union of Marine Insurance conference in Australia, a senior insurance executive said that "serious casualties will one day occur."

Conference speakers pointed out that the cruise industry, which it said is growing rapidly, is presenting several challenges, including the values of new ships reaching $200 million and $1 billion for ships planned for the future as well as new and unusual designs such as multi-story atriums.

Other insurance risk factors include ships moving in shallow and crowded coastal waters and the high average age of cruise ships (21).

The conference concluded that while groundings have been the most frequent problem for cruise ships, the marine insurance industry regards fires as the most serious problem, with engine rooms and galleys at highest risk.

It was also pointed out that western cruise ships have had no loss of life due to marine risk since 1979.