A Toronto born woman who was trapped on a burning ferry in the Adriatic Sea with her family and hundreds of desperate passengers told CBC about “the harrowing experience” they endured trying to escape with no help from the crew.
“It was complete panic, everyone was screaming,” Natasha Pejcinovski said Tuesday from her home in Corfu, Greece, where she lives with her husband, Nassos Tsonas, and their two sons.
“Everyone was trying to figure out where to go. There was no crew, there was no help,” she said of the fire on Sunday.
At least 11 people are known to have died on the ferry as well as two Albanian seamen who died during efforts to secure the ship. As many as 40 others could be missing.
Pejcinovski said she wants answers about the fire and what happened after.
- Greek ferry fire: More bodies feared aboard crippled Norman Atlantic
- Greek ferry fire: Evacuations over, 10 people dead
“I just hope the other families – people – get closure and we find answers to why there was no alarm, why there was no help,” she said.
“Actually on the lifeboat, there were several crew members with us on that lifeboat. They decided to save themselves.”
Escape on that lifeboat happened by chance, she said.
“The only way my husband and my family managed to get on it at the last moment [was] because the fire started burning underneath everybody’s feet and the people waiting to get on ran away in a panic – and my husband seized the chance to get us on it.”
The family had been asleep early Sunday when cries of "Fire! Fire!" came from outside their cabin.
Pejcinovski didn't think much of the noise. There had been no alarm — only an announcement for passengers to go to "Station 3" — so things couldn't be that serious, she thought.
“My husband, he heard voices outside and said ‘People are saying there’s a fire on the ship.’ I am, like, ‘Well, you know, there is no alarm. It is nothing serious.’”
Even when they opened the door to their cabin and saw smoke in the hallway, Tsonas was relaxed enough to suggest his wife get changed before going to the upper decks.
“He says ‘Let’s get dressed and if it’s nothing we will go back.’”
But there would be no going back.
'We were saying our goodbyes to each other.' -Natasha Pejcinovski
“By the time we got to the deck, we saw that the whole ship was burning,” she said.
Pejcinovski, Tsonas and their sons Dimitri, 14, and Sebastian, 11, braced for the worst, fearing it would be “the end of us,” she said.
“We were saying our goodbyes to each other. We were saying we loved each other. And having to look into their faces was the most horrific thing I have had to do in my life,” she said.
“That will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Flames were everywhere, lashing out from the decks. The floors were so hot it felt like their shoes were melting; the air so cold it felt like the frost could kill. Crew members were nowhere in sight.
“My husband just dragged us through the fire so we could get on to the lifeboat,” she said.
The family members, who had boarded the Norman Atlantic full of excitement about their plans to drive around Italy, Austria and Germany, prayed for a miracle to get them off the Norman Atlantic alive.
Once on a lifeboat, Pejcinovski said the ordeal continued.
“People died. I saw people falling into the sea. A gentleman with us on the lifeboat, because it violently banged against the ship and he was caught in it, he drowned,” she said.
“It was just horrific.”
The lifeboat bobbed in the sea with 150 passengers on board, and six-metre waves tossed the lifeboat like a plaything. Passengers vomited everywhere. Everybody was soaked to the bone from the freezing waters.
Natasha banged against other passengers, cutting and bruising her legs. The boys had stopped crying; shock had taken over. Their stomachs heaved as if in a roller-coaster as the lifeboat pitched in the waves.
And so it went for three long hours.
“We were banging violently against the boat. We were in the waves,” she said.
At one point, even their source of hope posed a danger to them.
“We went under the hull of the ship that rescued us,” she said.
Finally, crew members on the cargo ship Spirit of Piraeus pulled them in and dropped a rope ladder. Passengers began to climb up, one by one.
Pejcinovski said she is proud of how her sons reacted.
“The boys – except for the time where we were saying goodbye to each other and hugging them and telling them that we love them – they were actually very, very brave. They were actually very calm. I am proud of them as their mother. I wouldn’t have expected them to react like that.”
The boys are being “treated as little heroes” now that they are back home in Corfu, she said.