BARI — There were no fire alarms at first, no knocks on the door from the crew, just thick, acrid smoke filling cabins and waking passengers on the overnight ferry from Greece to Italy.
In the chaos that followed, passengers sought safety from the flames on deck, only to be drenched by cold rain and firefighting hoses while heat from the fire below burned their feet. Pushing and shoving broke out, and passengers came to blows over space in lifeboats and helicopter baskets.
“Everyone there was trampling on each other to get onto the helicopter,” Greek truck driver Christos Perlis told The Associated Press by telephone from one of the rescue vessels summoned after the Italian-flagged ferry caught fire off Albania early Sunday.
“The jungle law prevailed,” said Greek passenger Irene Varsioti. “There was no queue or order. No respect was shown for children.”
Italian and Greek helicopter rescue crews Monday evacuated the last of the known survivors aboard the vessel, bringing the number rescued to 427.
But the death toll climbed to at least 10, and the search in the Adriatic Sea for more possible victims continued amid serious discrepancies in the ship’s manifest and confusion over how many people were aboard. The vessel’s operator, Anek Lines, said 475 were on the ferry.
“We cannot say how many people may be missing,” Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi said at an evening news conference.
Italian officials said the names on the manifest may have represented just reservations, not actual passengers who boarded. Also, Italian navy Adm. Giovanni Pettorino said 80 of those rescued weren’t on the list at all, giving credence to suggestions from the Italian premier that the ferry may have been carrying a number of illegal migrants trying to reach Italy.
The blaze broke out on the car deck of the Norman Atlantic while the ferry was traveling from the Greek port of Patras to Ancona in Italy. The cause of the fire was under investigation.
The Italian military congratulated itself for a remarkable around-the-clock rescue operation in horrendous weather: 40 knot (75 kph; 46 mph) winds, high seas, choking smoke and the dark of the Adriatic night.
Hundreds of passengers, crew members and two dogs were plucked from the rain-soaked ferry decks in helicopter baskets as the fire blazed below.
Some suffered hypothermia, others mild carbon monoxide poisoning, but the first big group to reach land — 49 people who came ashore in Bari just after dawn Monday — walked off their rescue ship on their own, exhausted and draped in blankets to ward off the cold.
Navy Adm. Giuseppe De Giorgi hailed the Italian ferry captain, Argilio Giacomazzi, for having stayed on board to see the evacuation through, in striking contrast to the skipper in Italy’s last maritime disaster. Capt. Francesco Schettino is on trial on charges of manslaughter and leaving the ship early in the 2012 wreck of the Costa Concordia, in which 32 people were killed.
“As an old seaman, I offer my deferential salute to the ship captain for having done his job with great dignity and competence,” De Giorgi said. “He was last off, as a captain should be.”
Giacomazzi’s daughter, Giulia, said her father was “very precise and very careful” about his work.
“The classic story of the sea,” she told AP from the family’s home in La Spezia. “The captain is the last to leave the ship.”
Anek Lines said all inspections required by law had been carried out, and the ship had been issued all necessary safety certificates.
Passengers said the scene aboard the ship was chaos, with virtually no direction coming from the mostly Italian crew. Several said that they knew to get out of their cabins only because other passengers banged on their doors or because they couldn’t breathe from the smoke.
“There was no alarm — this was the absolute tragedy,” Dimitra Theodossiou, a Greek soprano, told Italy’s La Repubblica. “They didn’t knock. They didn’t advise us. We woke from smoke that entered in the room.”
Perlis, the Greek truck driver, described the rescue scene as “a chaos, a panic,” hampered by passengers whose feet were burning from the fire underneath them. “And from the feet up we were soaked,” he said.
When rescue helicopters arrived, Perlis said, passengers began to clamber for position.
“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.
Greek passenger Chrysostomos Apostolou, a civil engineer who had been traveling with his wife and their two boys, ages 8 and 14, said: “I witnessed an image of hell as described by Dante, on a ship where the decks were melting and we were trying to find some place that was not burning to stand on.”
British show-jumper Nick Channing-Williams told Sky News that he heard an alarm at 5 a.m., well after the flames were underway. Passengers said eventually an order went out for passengers to get their life vests and come to the upper decks.
“When we got out on deck, the flames were huge and all the cars were on fire,” he said.
“The fire was basically cooking everybody’s feet. … People just panicked,” he added. “When the flames are licking up the side of the boat and there’s no sign of help … you do feel somewhat helpless.”
A Turkish passenger, Aylin Akamac, told the state-run Anadolu Agency: “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.”
Late Monday, Italy’s transport ministry sequestered the ferry, saying Italian and Albanian authorities would decide which port to bring it to amid dueling jurisdictions over any criminal or civil liability for the disaster.
PAOLO SANTALUCIA, Associated Press
COSTAS KANTOURIS, Associated Press
COLLEEN BARRY, Associated Press
Kantouris reported from Thesaloniki, Greece, and Barry from Milan. Nicole Winfield contributed from Rome, Suzan Fraser from Ankara, Turkey; Elena Becatoros, Derek Gatopoulos, Nicholas Paphitis and Demetris Nellas from Athens, Greece, and Jill Lawless from London.
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