BARI, Italy — Helicopters defied high winds, stormy seas and darkness Monday to pluck hundreds of passengers from a Greek ferry that caught fire off Albania, as survivors told of a frantic rush to escape the flames and pelting rain. Five people died and dozens remained trapped on board a day after the fire broke out.
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.
By mid-Monday, fewer than 100 people remained stranded on the smoke-filled vessel adrift in frigid temperatures and rough seas near the Albanian coast. Helicopters worked night and day plucking passengers off the stricken vessel and ferrying them to 10 or so mercantile ships nearby that were summoned to help.
One Greek man died on Sunday after becoming trapped in a lifeboat chute. Greek Coast Guard spokesman Nikos Lagadianos said four more people were found dead on Monday. Four-hundred-seventy-eight passengers and crew were on board when the ferry caught fire.
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.
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.
By midday Monday, 391 people had been evacuated, leaving fewer than 100 more on board, Greek officials said. Italian Premier Matteo Renzi told an annual year-end press conference that he expected the rescue to be completed “within hours” and that there could be a discrepancy between the final number of people accounted-for and ship’s manifest due to the likelihood that the ferry also carried illegal migrants.
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 with winds over 40 knots (75 km/h). 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.
Those remaining on board were given thermal blankets and found places to wait protected from the elements “even if the conditions remain very difficult,” Pettorino said.
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.
“The priority now is to rescue the crew and passengers as quickly as possible,” Rizzotto said.
The second injury was to a member of the Italian military involved in the rescue operation, Pettorino said.
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.
[The Associated Press]