Two people are missing after a Mediterranean cruise ship sank Friday, 15 hours after striking a reef off the Greek island of Santorini.

A45-year-old French man and his 16-year-old daughter are missing, said officials.

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A coast guard officer looks over the spot where the Greek-flagged cruise ship Sea Diamond sank off the Aegean island of Santorini early Friday. ((Thanassis Stavrakis/Associated Press))

The Greek-flagged Sea Diamond issued a distress signal Thursday after hitting rocks off Santorini and starting to fill with water.

Close to 1,600 people were removed from the 143-metre boat as it sank.

Tourism Minister Fanny Palli Petralia said she had spoken with the missing passenger's wife.

"The lady said her cabin filled with water when the ship struck rocks and that she narrowly escaped," Petralia said. "She was not sure whether her husband and daughter made it out because things happened so suddenly… in a few seconds. Her other child was up on deck and was evacuated safely."

Canadian students on board

At least 60 Canadian high school students on the ship were among those rescued.

"Water was up to their knees," said Glenda Metro of Tofield, Alta., whose daughter was on the boat. "A door blew off and almost hit one of the girls."

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Rescued passengers are transferred from the cruise ship Sea Diamond to a lifeboat near Santorini on Thursday. ((Associated Press))

Metro, who spoke to her daughter by telephone shortly after the accident, said her daughter and her classmates were not injured.

The students from the school southeast of Edmonton were on the cruise as part of a class trip to Greece.

A group of students from Montreal's Lester B. Pearson High School was also on the boat.

"The evacuation began almost immediately and all the students have been safely removed from the boat," principal Terrence Quinn said from Montreal.

"They are all on the island of Santorini and they are together as a group in the company of teachers."

Ship listed during rescue

During the rescue, many of the boat's 1,200 passengers and 400 crew members were forced to climb down rope ladders to rescue vessels. The ship was listing at a 12-degree angle at the time.

Tourists on Santorini gathered in clifftop towns and villages to watch the rescue.

Passengers shown on Greek television said they heard a loud noise and then felt the ship tip to the side within minutesasobjects in cabins slid off shelves and smashed to the floor.

Crew members dashed throughout the ship calling for people to put on life-jackets, but appeared unorganized, said passengers.

More than a dozen ships were involved in the rescue, along with six navy rescue helicopters, two military transport planes and four warships.

"With a ship this size, it's like dealing with a 12-storey building," said Manolis Kefaloyiannis, Greece's merchant marine minister. "It's a difficult operation."

The passengers, most of them American, were taken by ferry and small boats to the island's main port.

Petralia said arrangements have been made to lodge the rescued passengers in Santorini hotels.

They will return to Athens on chartered ships early Friday.

The 143-metre Sea Diamond was operated by Louis Cruise Lines, part of a Cyprus-based tourism group. The Merchant Marine Ministry said 1,195 passengers and 391 crew members were on board.

The Sea Diamond was built in 1986 and refurbished in 1999.

With files from the Associated Press