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Dec 29, 2014 4:19 AM

Dozens still trapped on Greek ferry as 49 reach land

The Associated Press

BARI, Italy (AP) Exhausted and cold but safe, a group of 49 people arrived at the Italian port of Bari Monday after they were rescued from a Greek ferry that caught fire in the Adriatic Sea. Some 150 people remained trapped on the smoke-filled vessel adrift in frigid temperatures and rough seas between Italy and Albania.

At least one person was killed in the risky rescue operation and two others were injured as Italian and Greek rescue ships and helicopters worked through the night plucking passengers off the stricken vessel and bringing them to safety aboard the 10 or so mercantile ships nearby that were summoned to help.

Most evacuees were to be brought to shore later after the rescue was completed, Greek officials said, but one of the cargo ships, the Spirit of Piraeus, left ahead of the pack. After being forced by the weather to abandon plans to dock in the port of Brindisi, the ship reached Bari just after 7:30 a.m. (0630 GMT) Monday with 49 survivors aboard. The first to disembark was an injured man wrapped in a yellow striped blanket and wearing bandages around his bare feet, helped down the ship's ladder by two rescue workers.

Other evacuees, many wrapped in blankets, made their way gingerly down the ladder with assistance, some thrusting their hands in a victory sign as they waited their turn. Among them were four children. TV crews and relatives gathered on the docks below in near silence.

The evacuees then boarded bright red fire department buses. Officials have said hotels have been booked for them around town.

The fire broke out before dawn Sunday on a car deck of the Italian-flagged Norman Atlantic, carrying 422 passengers and 56 crew members. 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.

By early Monday, 329 people had been evacuated, leaving 149 more on board, the Italian navy said.

While the Spirit of Piraeus' arrival was the first big group of evacuees to be brought ashore, other survivors had been 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.

Dr. Raffaele Montinaro at the hospital in Lecce said the three children taken there were in "excellent" condition, and emergency room doctor Antonio Palumbo said a pregnant woman was also in good condition.

"For sure they are scared," said Eligio Rocco Catamo, manager of the Copertino hospital. "But I should say that I was impressed by the calm and the serenity they are showing."

A local convent was housing survivors who were released from the hospital.

Helicopters rescued passengers throughout the night, completing 34 sorties with winds over 40 knots (75 kph; 46 mph). The Greek coast guard said seven people had been airlifted from the ferry to Corfu.

"Notwithstanding the weather and the darkness, which is another factor, we persisted throughout the entire night," Italian coast guard Admiral Giovanni Pettorino told Sky TG24.

Those remaining on board were given thermal blankets and found places to wait protected from the elements "even if the conditions remain very difficult," Pettorino said.

Italian navy Capt. Riccardo Rizzotto said the ultimate destination of the stricken ferry was unclear. Some Italian officials said it would likely be towed to an Italian port, even though it was currently closer to Albania.

"The priority now is to rescue the crew and passengers as quickly as possible," Rizzotto said.

The Italian Navy said the man who died and his injured wife were transported by helicopter to the southern Italian city of Brindisi. It was unclear how the death and injury occurred, but the Greek Coast Guard said the pair both Greek passengers were found in a lifeboat rescue chute.

The second injury was to a member of the Italian military involved in the rescue operation, Pettorino said.

Pettorino said two Italian tugs tried to attach themselves to the ferry in the evening, but were frustrated by the thick smoke. Eventually the tugs managed to attach the line to stabilize the ferry, ANSA reported.

Passengers described scenes of terror and chaos when the fire broke out as they slept in their cabins.

"They called first on women and children to be evacuated from the ship," Vassiliki Tavrizelou, who was rescued along with her 2-year-old daughter, told The Associated Press.

Dotty Channing-Williams, mother of British ferry passenger Nick Channing-Williams, said she had managed to speak to her son before he and his Greek fiancee were airlifted to safety. She said she had complained to her son that there was no information available for families.

"He said 'Well, it's an awful lot worse for us because we're actually standing out here in the pouring rain, and thunder and lightning, and we really just don't know exactly what's going to happen.'"


Winfield reported from Rome. Colleen Barry in Milan; Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki, Greece; Elena Becatoros, Derek Gatopoulos, Nicholas Paphitis and Demetris Nellas in Athens, Greece; and Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed.


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