Dec 29, 2014 12:00 PM
Death toll in the Greek ferry fire rises to 8
The Associated Press
BARI, Italy (AP) Fighting high winds and stormy seas, helicopter rescue crews on Monday evacuated hundreds of people trapped aboard a Greek ferry that caught fire off Albania. The death toll climbed to eight as survivors told of a frantic rush to escape, caught among flames, pelting rain and passengers who fought others for rescue.
The evacuation of the overnight ferry from Greece to Italy was completed in the early afternoon with the rescue of 427 people, including 56 crew members, said Italy's transport minister, Maurizio Lupi.
The original ferry manifest listed 422 passengers and 56 crew members, but Italian navy Adm. Giovanni Pettorino said 80 of those rescued did not appear on it at all.
That backed up something that officials as high as Italian Premier Matteo Renzi have hinted throughout the day: That the ferry may have been carrying a number of illegal migrants trying to reach Italy.
Italian authorities said two boats were remaining in the Adriatic Sea to continue the search for people who may still be missing, while a priority was placed on comparing the list of those rescued and deceased with the passenger list to determine how many people, if any, may still be unaccounted for.
"We cannot say how many people may be missing," Lupi said.
Adm. Giuseppe De Giorgi, an Italian naval commander, said it was possible others had fallen in the water when lifeboats were initially deployed.
The problem wasn't just that the ferry carried people not officially declared. It remained unclear how many people on the original manifest never actually boarded the ill-fated ferry, which caught flames early Sunday en route from the Greek port of Patras to the Italian port of Ancona.
Of the eight dead, one Greek man died Sunday trying to get into a lifeboat, with his wife, who survived; and four bodies were recovered from the sea on Monday. The circumstances and identities of the other three were unknown.
The fire broke out before dawn Sunday on a car deck of the Italian-flagged Norman Atlantic. All day and night, passengers huddled on the vessel's upper decks, pelted by rain and hail and struggling to breathe through the thick smoke.
Exhausted and cold from their ordeal, the largest group of 49 passengers reached land Monday in the southern Italian port of Bari, more than 24 hours after the fire began.
Evacuees, many wrapped in blankets, made their way gingerly down the exterior stairs with assistance, some thrusting their hands in a victory sign as they waited their turn. Among them were four children. The evacuees then boarded bright red fire department buses. Officials have said hotels have been booked for them around town.
Later Monday, one of the rescue ships arrived at the Greek port of Igoumenitsa, carrying some 69 rescued ferry passengers among the roughly 500 people on board, while seven people had been airlifted from the ferry to Corfu.
But many rescued passengers remained on boats still searching off the Albanian coast. Authorities said they eventually would be taken by helicopter to land to allow the search to continue, without specifying where.
The Greek and Italian premiers separately expressed their condolences to the victims and gratitude to the rescue workers for persisting throughout the night in worsening weather conditions, against winds over 40 knots (75 kph; 46 mph).
"Notwithstanding the weather and the darkness, which is another factor, we persisted throughout the entire night," Pettorino told Sky TG24.
Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samras said the "massive and unprecedented operation saved the lives of hundreds of passengers following the fire on the ship in the Adriatic Sea under the most difficult circumstances," while Renzi said the "impressive" rescue efforts prevented "a slaughter at sea."
Passenger accounts emerging Monday painted a picture of a panicked reaction as the fire spread, with passengers choking on the smoke and struggling to figure out how to reach safety as they suffered both searing heat from the ship's floors and driving rain outside.
Prosecutors in Bari were opening an investigation into how the fire started. The damaged ferry itself was to be taken eventually to a northern Adriatic port, but officials said it had not yet been determined which one.
A Greek truck driver, reached by The Associated Press aboard one of the rescue vessels, described the rescue scene as "a chaos, a panic." He said the fire alarm came after most passengers, alerted by smoke filling their cabins, had gone outside, and that there was no crew in sight to direct passengers.
"Our feet were burning and from the feet up we were soaked," Christos Perlis, 32, said by telephone.
When rescue helicopters arrived, Perlis said passengers began to panic.
"Everyone there was trampling on each other to get onto the helicopter," said Perlis, who said he and another man tried to impose order.
"First children, then women and then men. But the men, they started hitting us so they could get on first. They didn't take into consideration the women or the children, nothing," Perlis said. He said he reached safety after jumping in a helicopter basket carrying a girl.
Turkish passenger Saadet Bayhan, speaking to Turkey's NTV television from a rescue ship, confirmed that there were no fire alarms and that passengers woke each other up.
"We experienced the Titanic. The only thing missing was that we didn't sink," she said.
Another rescued Turkish passenger, Aylin Akamac, told the state-run Anadolu Agency from a hospital in Brindisi that the rescue operation was disorganized and that there were only three lifeboats on the ferry.
"Those who got out first got on the lifeboats," she said, while the others were made to wait. "We were soaked from the water they doused to extinguish the fire. Our feet froze. People were forced to move closer to the fire to keep warm. We waited outside for hours."
Survivors were also taken to southern Italian hospitals in smaller numbers in the hours immediately after the rescue operation got underway. Several were treated for hypothermia, some for mild carbon monoxide poisoning and one woman suffered a fractured pelvis, officials said.
Winfield reported from Rome. Colleen Barry in Milan; Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki, Greece; Suzan Frazer in Ankara, Turkey; Elena Becatoros, Derek Gatopoulos, Nicholas Paphitis and Demetris Nellas in Athens, Greece; and Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed