Norman Atlantic search hampered by heat, smoke

The search for 18 passengers feared dead on the Norman Atlantic ferry, where nine were killed in a fire that broke out as it traveled between Greece and Italy on December 28, is being hampered by toxic smoke and heat in the parking area, investigators at the Italian port of Brindisi told local media there on Monday.

Search teams said that access to the basement areas of the ship that remain to be searched for bodies and for clues into the causes of the fire was extremely difficult because of the thick smoke and intense heat generated by days of slow burning after the initial conflagration was brought under control.

The Norman Atlantic had been leased by Greece’s ANEK to Italy’s Visemar di Navigazione to run the Patra-Igoumenitsa-Ancona route when the deadly fire broke out, most likely on the car deck at basement level 3. The ship was towed to Brindisi on January 2 and the blaze was brought under control on January 12. It has continued to smoulder since.

Nine people died either in the blaze or by drowning after jumping in the sea, and 18 are believed missing, including truck drivers who may have been sleeping in their vehicles when the fire broke out. The challenge for investigators now is to search all the vehicles in the parking area for passengers and possible stowaways, though Italian media said that the blaze has transformed them all of into “a mass of metal.” The search is also hampered by the toxic smoke that continues to fog the search area, though authorities have placed special fans and hope to clear it up within the next few days.

Investigators are expected on Tuesday to begin examining the ship’s black boxes, though they have also suffered extensive damage in the fire.