Fighting high winds and stormy seas, helicopter rescue crews on Monday evacuated the last of hundreds of people trapped aboard an Italian-flagged ferry that caught fire off Albania. The death toll climbed to 10 as survivors told of a frantic rush to escape the flames and pelting rain.
The evacuation of the ferry 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 Lupi said it was premature to speculate on whether people were still missing. He suggested that there might have been some people who reserved a spot on the ferry but did not board.
One Canadian, a man identified by the Greek Embassy in Ottawa only as N. Pejcinovski, was on the ferry. An Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson told CBC the Canadian was rescued and taken to hospital.
Among the survivors, there were also people not listed on the manifest, indicating the possibility that some on board were travelling illegally.
The fire broke out before dawn Sunday on a car deck of the 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.
Of the 10 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.
Exhausted and cold from their ordeal, 49 passengers reached land Monday in the southern Italian port of Bari, more than 24 hours after the 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 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.
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 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."
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. 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. The evacuees then boarded bright red fire department buses. Officials have said hotels have been booked for them around town.
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.