Heidi Hart and Christine Shannon, friends from Seattle, had intended to go to Mexico for a September vacation but changed their minds when they realized they might run into a hurricane. Instead they went to Greece—and wound up fighting for their lives in the worst Greek maritime disaster in 35 years.

At approximately 5 p.m. on Sept. 26, they set off on the 345-ft. ferry Express Samina from Piraeus, the port city of Athens, for a five-hour trip to the Aegean island of Faros. The ferry, buffeted by 45 mph winds and waves as high as 15 feet, drifted off course. Just after 10 p.m., for reasons that are still under investigation, the vessel hit a huge, well-charted rock two miles off Faros and began to sink. Suddenly Hart, 26, an accountant for a roofing company, and Shannon, 32, a preschool teacher and artist, were fighting—along with more than 540 other passengers and crew—for survival. The two Americans shared their story with contributor Toula Vlahou.

Hart: After the first hour out of Piraeus it started getting windier and windier up on deck, and at first I was like, "It's getting a little bumpy here." But we're from Seattle. This is everyday weather there, so I didn't think much of it. By 8:30, though, I had on all the clothes I had brought with me: two pairs of pants, all three of my shirts, my scarf around my neck and a towel wrapped around my head. People were laughing at me, but I was so cold. I had a pair of shorts wrapped around my feet.

Around 10 p.m. the two Americans felt a change in the thrum of the engines. They assumed they were coming into Paros. In fact the crew were frantically trying to maneuver away from the rock, an islet called Portes that juts more than 80 feet out of the water and is topped by a lighthouse visible from seven miles away.

Hart: I felt us hit the rock and looked up and it was straight in front of me, lit up. It looked like a movie set. It was like, "This isn't real, they're playing a joke on us. This must be a big Styrofoam rock next to the dock."

Shannon: We looked at each other and laughed and kind of went, "What's that?"

Hart: You could hear it tear the side of the boat. With a hole that big, I just looked at Christine and said, "We're going down. We have to get off the boat now."

The collision knocked out the lights on the ferry and touched off a panic. Adding to the confusion, the crew made no announcements and issued no instructions. Shannon and Hart noticed that many of the life jackets appeared ancient, and none seemed to have directions for use. With few of the ferry's 63-man crew in sight, passengers were forced to lower some of the lifeboats, at least one of which bobbed away empty.

Hart: We looked at each other, and we knew we were just going to fend for ourselves. Everybody started running toward the back of the boat, and the back was the part that was sinking. So we started to run to high ground. I got pushed by a couple of men running past me and hit my head on the railing, so I said, "Stay away from the men. They'll hurt us."

Shannon: That was the first right decision. We went where nobody was.

Hart: We were slipping. The boat was tilting so much that we were holding on to the guard rails so we wouldn't slide down to the side that was sinking.

Shannon: I looked over Heidi's shoulder and saw somebody motioning to me. I said, "Go!" and I grabbed her and we just went. A man was at the top of some metal stairs leading down to the next floor where there was a lifeboat.

Shannon: But immediately when the boat hit the water, there were waves, and we almost capsized. Then we were smashed against the bottom of the ferry.

Hart: We were piled on top of each other. It wasn't like everybody was sitting orderly in their seats.

Finally they managed to maneuver the lifeboat free of the ferry. Over the howl of the wind and the crashing of the waves they could hear people shouting in the water, hut they had trouble seeing them. They managed to rescue two men, one of whom had escaped into the cold water in only his underwear. Within minutes the lifeboat began leaking.

Shannon: Heidi told me, "We're taking on water." There's a hole in the boat, and I lean back and tell the guy behind me. He looks at me and he says, "Yes, we're going down." The waves were just huge. Water was hitting us in the face, and that added to the confusion.

It took the Express Samina only 38 minutes to sink, but not before the captain had gotten off a distress signal. Several British warships in the vicinity rushed to the scene, along with Greek Coast Guard vessels. A flotilla of local boats from Faros responded as well, their crews risking their lives in the battering swells. Other islanders hurried in cars to the beach, where they used their headlights as a beacon for the survivors and rescuers. About 40 minutes after the sinking, a pair of trawlers guided Hart and Shannon's lifeboat to shore, where they were taken to a clinic. Not until the next morning, while watching coverage on television, did the two Americans realize the full extent of the tragedy. In all, searchers recovered the bodies of 79 victims, including a 16-month-old boy, with another four unaccounted for. For days afterward, neither woman could stop crying.

Hart: It's just so scary to think of how close we were.

Shannon: Those people on the island were just so good to us. It's so sad that o such a tragedy had to happen. I know they lost a lot s of loved ones, but they were so good to us.