Bari: (AP) Fighting high winds and stormy seas, helicopter rescue crews today evacuated hundreds of people trapped aboard a Greek ferry that caught fire off Albania.
The death toll climbed to 10 as survivors told of a frantic rush to escape, caught among flames, pelting rain and passengers who fought others for rescue. The evacuation of the overnight ferry from Greece to Italy was completed in the early afternoon with the rescue of 427 people, including 56 crew members, said Italy's transport minister, Maurizio Lupi.
The original ferry manifest listed 422 passengers and 56 crew members, but Italian navy Adm. Giovanni Pettorino said 80 of those rescued did not appear on it at all. That backed up something that officials as high as Italian Premier Matteo Renzi have hinted throughout the day: That the ferry may have been carrying a number of illegal migrants trying to reach Italy.
Italian authorities said two boats were remaining in the Adriatic Sea to continue the search for people who may still be missing, while a priority was placed on comparing the list of those rescued and deceased with the passenger list to determine how many people, if any, may still be unaccounted for.
"We cannot say how many people may be missing," Lupi said. Adm. Giuseppe De Giorgi, an Italian naval commander, said it was possible others had fallen in the water when lifeboats were initially deployed. The problem wasn't just that the ferry carried people not officially declared.
It remained unclear how many people on the original manifest never actually boarded the ill-fated ferry, which caught flames early yesterday en route from the Greek port of Patras to the Italian port of Ancona. Of the 10 dead, one Greek man died Sunday trying to get into a lifeboat, with his wife, who survived; and four bodies were recovered from the sea today.
The circumstances and identities of the other three were unknown. The fire broke out before dawn Sunday on a car deck of the Italian-flagged Norman Atlantic. 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.
Exhausted and cold from their ordeal, the largest group of 49 passengers reached land Monday in the southern Italian port of Bari, more than 24 hours after the fire began. Evacuees, many wrapped in blankets, made their way gingerly down the exterior stairs 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.