BARI, Italy (AP) — Fighting high winds and stormy seas, helicopter rescue crews on Monday evacuated the last of the hundreds of people trapped aboard a Greek ferry that caught fire off Albania. The death toll climbed to seven 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 two more bodies were recovered Monday afternoon, adding to the four bodies found earlier in the water and the body of one Greek man recovered Sunday from a lifeboat chute.
It didn’t immediately say where the two latest bodies were found.
The Greek Coast Guard said 432 people were rescued from the ferry. Those included passengers and crew, Greek Coast Guard spokesman Nikos Lagadianos said. He added that the figures came from Italian authorities who are in charge of the rescue operation.
After catching fire early Sunday, passengers became trapped on the top decks as gale-force winds and choppy seas hampered the evacuation. Greek and Italian rescue helicopters and vessels struggled to reach the stricken ferry, with nearby merchant ships lining up to form a wall against the raging gusts
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 Monday 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 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. (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. 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.
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.
A local convent was housing survivors who were released from the hospital.
Helicopters rescued passengers throughout the night, completing 34 sorties by dawn 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.
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.
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.
Reporting by The Associated Press