Greek Coast Guard: 432 people rescued from ferry fire
Fighting high winds and stormy seas, helicopter rescue crews yesterday evacuated the last of the hundreds of people trapped aboard a Greek ferry that caught fire off Albania. The death toll climbed to at least 10 as survivors told of a frantic rush to escape the flames and pelting rain.
The evacuation was completed in the early afternoon, and the captain was the last to leave the ferry, the Italian and Greek coast guards said.
The Italian Coast Guard said five more bodies were recovered yesterday, adding to the four bodies found earlier in the water and the body of one Greek man recovered Sunday from a lifeboat chute.
The Greek Coast Guard said 432 people were rescued from the ferry. Those included passengers and crew, Greek Coast Guard spokesman Nikos Lagadianos said, adding the figures came from Italian authorities who are in charge of the rescue operation.
Specialist Italian Coast Guard teams were continuing to search the interior of the ferry and five Greek helicopters, a Greek frigate and another ship are still in the area, he said.
The ferry company had originally said there were 478 passengers and crew on-board the ferry, the Norman Atlantic, which caught fire Sunday morning.
Officials couldn't immediately explain the discrepancy between the numbers.
Exhausted and cold from their ordeal, 49 passengers reached land yesterday in the southern Italian port of Bari, more than 24 hours after fire broke out on a car deck of the ferry making a journey from the Greek port of Patras to Ancona in Italy.
The Greek and Italian premiers separately expressed their condolences to the victims and gratitude to the rescue workers. 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 yesterday 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.
CHAOS DURING RESCUE
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, told the AP by telephone.
When rescue helicopters arrived, Perlis said passengers began to panic.
"Everyone there was trampling on each other to get on to 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 into a helicopter basket carrying a girl.
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, reaching Bari just after 7:30 a.m. (0630 GMT) yesterday 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.