Death toll in ferry fire disaster rises to 10 - but dozens are still unaccounted for

The Singapore-flagged cargo container ship Spirit of Piraeus, carrying 49 passengers evacuated from the ferry Norman Atlantic, arriving in the harbour of Bari on Dec 29, 2014, as Italian advanced rescue personnel and police wait on the quay. -- PHOTO
The Singapore-flagged cargo container ship Spirit of Piraeus, carrying 49 passengers evacuated from the ferry Norman Atlantic, arriving in the harbour of Bari on Dec 29, 2014, as Italian advanced rescue personnel and police wait on the quay. -- PHOTO: AFP
Passengers among 49 survivors evacuated from the burning ferry Norman Atlantic waiting to disembark from the Singapore-flagged cargo container ship Spirit of Piraeus as they arrive in the harbour of Bari, southern Italy, on Dec 29, 2014. -- PHOTO: AF
Passengers among 49 survivors evacuated from the burning ferry Norman Atlantic waiting to disembark from the Singapore-flagged cargo container ship Spirit of Piraeus as they arrive in the harbour of Bari, southern Italy, on Dec 29, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

ROME (AFP) - The death toll after a ferry caught fire in rough seas in the Adriatic rose to 10 on Monday with dozens of passengers still unaccounted for.

It was unclear whether the missing passengers had drowned or otherwise died unnoticed or whether the ill-fated Norman Atlantic’s manifest lists were inaccurate.

Pending resolution of the issue, the Italian navy was continuing to search for bodies around the stricken ferry, which remained in waters close to Albania hours after nightfall.

As survivors described a terrifying ordeal that could easily have claimed far more lives, Italian Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi confirmed that a total of 427 people had been winched to safety by helicopter over the course of a 24-hour rescue operation carried out in the teeth of an unusually fierce winter storm.

With the 10 confirmed dead, that left 41 people unaccounted for, going by the list of passengers and crew released by the ferry’s Greek operator on Sunday.

Mr Lupi said it was unclear if the discrepancy was due to errors on the passenger list, no-shows at boarding or people getting off at a stopover on the Greek island of Igoumenitsa.

“It is up to the departure port to match up their list and the people (rescued),” Lupi said.

“That is why we are continuing our (search) effort: we cannot know what the exact number was.”

Greek Merchant Marine Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis acknowledged the list was “possibly inaccurate” and complained about poor communication with Italy.

“I strongly doubt that all the names on the list are real – we have two persons with the same name, who turned out to be one person,” the minister told Mega TV.

None of the statements made by survivors of the disaster has so far given any indication that as many as 40 passengers may have died.

But there was a worrying indication of possible more bad news when an empty lifeboat washed up on the shores of Albania.

CAPTAIN LAST MAN OFF

The uncertainty over the scale of the disaster emerged hours after after the 24-hour operation to evacuate the ferry was completed in the early afternoon.

Ship captain Argilio Giacomazzi, 62, upheld centuries of maritime tradition by ensuring he was the last man off, handing over to Italian navy officers at 2.50pm (9.50pm Singapore time).

His conduct was in marked contrast to that of the last Italian sea captain to make global headlines, Francesco Schettino, the Costa Concordia skipper currently on trial for manslaughter abandoning a sinking cruise liner on which 32 people died in January 2012.

Wrapped in blankets and with many of them sporting bandages, 49 of the 478 passengers and crew who were on board the ferry when it caught fire shortly after dawn on Sunday disembarked from a merchant ship at the Italian port of Bari.

They and other evacuees told how the fire triggered panic which the crew appeared ill-prepared to deal with.

One of the first passengers off in Bari told reporters he had thought he was going to die as parts of the boat became engulfed by thick smoke as the ferry was travelling from Greece from Italy.

“We did not know what to do. The staff had no idea how to get people off the boat,” he said.

“The lifeboats did not work, there was only one of them in the water and none of the crew were there to help people.”

The evacuation was completed nearly 36 hours after a fire broke out on the car deck and left the huge vessel drifting dangerously.

Questions are now being asked about how the fire started and why it was not contained.

Different accounts of a safety inspection carried out on Dec 19 have emerged and several survivors reported the car deck as being covered by a film of leaked fuel.

Bari prosecutor Giuseppe Volpe announced a criminal investigation which will seek to establish whether negligence contributed to the disaster.

'WE ARE DYING'

Ms Teodora Douli, the wife of a Greek passenger who died on Sunday, described how she watched her husband die in front of her after they ended up in the water.

“We spent four hours in the water,” she said Monday. “I tried to save him but I couldn’t. We are dying, we’re dying, he told me.

“I watched my husband die,” she added in an interview with the Italian news agency Ansa at the hospital she was helicoptered to.

“He was bleeding through his nose, perhaps because he banged his head on the side of the ship.”

Other evacuees were flown to the Greek island of Corfu, where lorry driver Fotis Santakidis described how the smell of the smoke from the fire had woken him in his cabin.

“I ran out. I looked out for a lifejacket but I could not find one,” he told Greek newspaper Ethnos.

Ms Athina Pappas, a Greek journalist who was travelling with her husband, added: “Everyone was consumed by panic and nobody was telling us what we had to do.”

Some of the rescued passengers displayed mild symptoms of hypothermia but doctors treating the evacuees indicated that they were mainly dealing with shock and trauma.