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‘I will never forget those flames’

Two years after the maritime tragedy of the Norman Atlantic, survivors are still struggling with painful memories.

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Christina Samara-Pappa has moments when she can't recognize herself. She freaks out whenever she boards a boat or catches even the slightest whiff of smoke or petrol. She gets nervous when she's driving and is constantly worried when her children are traveling. “I'm not the person I used to be because I stared death in the face,” she says.

In the early hours of December 28, 2014, Samara was on the Norman Atlantic passenger ferry sailing from the western Greek port of Patra to Ancona in Italy. She often took Adriatic trips during the holidays, but this time, as the ship sailed through the Strait of Otranto before daybreak, she woke to the sound of shouting and the sight of her fellow passengers running around the corridors, pulling their young children along, sobbing. She smelled smoke and burning plastic.

“I saw flames all around me. I will never forget those flames,” she says.

The fire that broke out on the Norman Atlantic led to a frantic rescue effort that lasted some 36 hours and resulted in 11 confirmed dead and 18 missing. Some victims died in the flames, trapped on the car deck, others were lost at sea. Several bodies were only possible to identify using DNA analysis.

The Norman Atlantic at the Italian port of Bari.

It has been two years since that fateful event and, after several delays, experts assigned by Italian judicial authorities are expected to release their final report on the incident by the end of January.

In the meantime, a large number of passengers reached out-of-court deals with the companies responsible for the ship, while last week 105 plaintiffs – survivors and relatives of victims – filed suit for compensation in Italy. They include 49 passengers and relatives of seven of the casualties, among whom are the parents of a 6-year-old Syrian stowaway whose remains have yet to be recovered. The defendants are shipping companies Visemar di Navigazione and Visemar Trasporti, the ANEK-Superfast consortium, registration operator RINA Services SpA and the Italian shipyard Cantiere Navale Visentini.

According to their lawyers in Greece and Italy, the plaintiffs are claiming that the fire was caused by a “series of oversights and mistakes.” They say that trucks were parked too closely together in the garage and some were allowed to keep their engines running at sea, impeding fire patrols. They claim inadequate training and coordination among the Greek and Italian crewmen, as well as violations of protocol when it came to managing the incident and evacuating the ship.

They also say that, among other problems, the construction of the ship itself (overly large openings, including some windows) made the task of putting out the blaze that much harder. “We believe that the air coming in from these big openings affected the smoke detectors during the fire,” says Stefano Bertone, one of the lawyers involved in the suit for the plaintiffs.

His colleague, Silina Pavlaki, from the Greek Pavlaki-Moschou law firm which is cooperating with the Italians on this case, explained that the openings allowed air in to fuel the fire. To back their argument, they point to the Sorrento, the Norman Atlantic's sister ship which caught fire off Majorca in April 2015, but that did not result in any casualties.

As is evident from Samara's testimony, the survivors of the Norman Atlantic have basically spent the last two years trying to deal with the psychological effects of the accident. “A lot of them are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Pavlaki, citing truck drivers who have stopped accepting routes to Italy because they refuse to board a ferry and other phobias that afflict the survivors who are feeling the consequences on their private and professional lives.

“There are people who still have nightmares and flashbacks, and some are on medication,” the lawyer says.

No directions

Samara cannot remember hearing an alarm, only shouts of “Get out!” from the hall outside her cabin. “I saw smoke coming out of the plug hole in the sink and a terrible noise, and I knew that something serious was happening,” she says as she recounts the events of that night to Kathimerini. Before leaving her cabin, she looked for a life vest and couldn't find one. She managed to put on her coat and grab her passport and ID card.

The reception, the bar and other parts of the ship started to fill with smoke. According to testimonies given by survivors to the Italian authorities, no one was giving the passengers any directions at that point, nor were there any announcements from the public address system. Everyone scrambled to do what they thought best.

Scenes of passengers wearing life vests as they wait on deck to be rescued.

Up on deck, five passengers took it upon themselves to hand out life vests they found in a crate – some of them testified that the crate was locked and they had to break it open. When Samara came out on deck with her fellow traveler Andreas Tolaros, she weighed her options.

“The wind was howling and the sea choppy. We could see huge flames through a glass door to our left,” she remembers. “We looked at each other and considered jumping into the water. But when I saw the waves I said: ‘Andreas, I'm not jumping. Let's stay, come what may.’”

The experts' report is expected to shed light on the exact cause of the blaze, but in testimony one of the Italian crew members said that there were at least two refrigerated trucks with their engines running during the journey in Garage 4 as they were not connected to the ship's power supply because there weren't enough plugs.

The trucks appear to have been parked so close to one another that another crew member said he could barely squeeze through to conduct the fire patrol. Other witness statements suggest some truck drivers had stayed in their vehicles for the journey and struggled to save themselves.

As the minutes and hours passed, the fire strengthened and spread. A blackout plunged the ship into darkness, as explosions could be heard coming from deep in its belly. Even the decks became so hot that passengers' shoe soles melted and stuck to the floor.

“The paint on the deck started to bubble in parts because of the fire below,” says Samara.

Lawyer Stefano Bertone was able to get an idea of the strength of the blaze during an inspection of the wreckage. It was July 12, 2015 by the time the lawyers and their technical advisers, along with experts from the defendants' side were able to enter the vessel.

“It was very sad. You could see how the hot the fire was,” he says.

Over two weeks went by before the last traces of fire were extinguished on the Norman Atlantic after it was towed into the Italian port of Brindisi. The Italian authorities then used special equipment to clear out the fumes. The ferry was then towed to Bari, where it remains to this day. That was when the lawyers and experts were able to visit.

They saw the damage caused by the fire.

Trapped below

There was a lot of confusion regarding the precise number of passengers who had been on board the Norman Atlantic from the start. The ship owned by Visemar and chartered by Greece's ANEK had a Greek and Italian crew of 56 members and the passenger manifest contained 400 names. However, survivors suggested that refugees and migrants had sneaked on board before departure.

The inspection of the trucks at boarding was cursory, according to witnesses. Just one in 10 trucks were x-rayed in Patra and three in 10 in Igoumenitsa. Two Afghans and a Syrian said they boarded the ferry by hiding beneath trucks and a Greek trucker testified to having seen stowaways as he tried to escape the blaze and later when he was on a lifeboat.

No one knows how many unregistered passengers there were on the Norman Atlantic, though there is evidence to suggest that a 6-year-old Syrian boy traveling alone was among them. His father and older brother had not managed to board the ship.

A tough rescue

Samara and Tolaros were stuck on the blazing ship for nearly 17 hours before they were rescued. Exposed to the strong winds and rain, they struggled to stay warm. Some passengers had squeezed into a corridor to protect themselves from the elements, changing places with others on the open decks every so often so that everyone could get some respite.

“I kept telling myself that this could not be happening. I felt like I was having a nightmare,” says Samara.

When they eventually ended up on the ship's highest deck, they ran into more problems as the floor was extremely slippery and the passengers struggled to stay on their feet. Samara remembers a woman in slippers who was unable to get up off the floor and her son calling for help. She described how one crew member gave his jacket to her companion and how a child was swept away by the water being sprayed onto the ship by firefighting boats.

Some crew members tried to help by ushering passengers onto the higher decks; others were in a rush to get to the lifeboats. According to statements given to the Italian authorities, one lifeboat with a capacity of 100 passengers was lowered with just 39, and even though there were passengers in the water below it.

One of the lifeboats washed up on the Albanian coast.

It took about 45 minutes battling gale-force winds and big waves for the lifeboat to reach the Spirit of Piraeus, a container ship which had approached the Norman Atlantic to help.

Problems were also reported with the evacuation chute, with passengers getting trapped.

An escape chute in tatters after the 2014 tragedy.

The Greek and Italian helicopters that appeared once the sun came out proved to be the only hope of escape.

A change in the direction of the wind forced the passengers to lie down on the wet deck while they waited for rescue as the smoke was blowing onto them and they were at risk of poisoning by smoke inhalation.

Two crew members, a Greek and an Italian, tried to organize them into some kind of line so that children and people with health problems would board the helicopters first. Airlifting hundreds of passengers from the Normal Atlantic was a frightening and arduous process that took hours.

Like others, Samara and Tolaros were flown by helicopter to Italy and then transferred to the hospital in Lecce. The irony is that the pair had originally planned to travel on a different ship but when they reached the port of Patra they were informed that they would be picked up by the Norman Atlantic.

Andreas Tolaros and other survivors arrive in Athens. [PHOTOS: YIANNIS KOLESIDIS & LEFTERIS PARTSALIS/ANA-MPA]

Tolaros has kept his mobile phone photographs from his rescue and his return home to Greece. “We boarded a ship that was completely disorganized. We could all be dead,” he says.

According to the plaintiffs' lawyers, they chose to file suit in Italy because that is where the Norman Atlantic wreck is moored and where the main part of the investigation is being held. “It is a complicated case that required a very extensive study by experts and technical advisers,” says Bertone. It took over a year, in fact, just to remove the vehicles from garages 3 and 4.

Managing the memories

Beyond the investigations and the progress of the case through the courts, many of the survivors and the relatives of those who were confirmed dead or are still missing continue to struggle with the memories of that day.

“The anniversary is close. It's a day to remember. I wish strength to the people who lost their loved ones,” says Tolaros. “I am not the Andreas I was before the accident. What's changed? I suffered from depression and every time I'm faced with a problem I can't deal with it the way I once did.”

Samara describes a similar situation. “Our behavior changed. We became touchy, we've lost our energy, every small thing looks insurmountable,” she says. “We can't forget it. Every day there will be something that reminds us.”


Two years after the tragedy in the Adriatic



Video editing: GOGO BEBELOU

For Kathimerini Kathimerini.gr.