BARI, Italy (AFP) - At least five people died after a car ferry caught fire in the Adriatic Sea, Greek and Italian officials said Monday, as survivors described a terrifying ordeal that could easily have been much more deadly.
Four bodies were recovered from the water around the stricken Norman Atlantic on Monday, a day after the body of a 62-year-old Greek man was pulled from the heaving sea.
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 the merchant ship "Spirit of Pireus" at the Italian port of Bari.
They and other evacuees told how the fire triggered terror and 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." Around 60 people, thought to be mainly crew, remained on the ferry shortly before 1200 GMT Monday, nearly 36 hours after a fire broke out on the car deck and left the huge vessel drifting dangerously in high seas off the coast of Albania.
With a second navy boat at the scene and able to provide a landing deck for helicopters, the pace of the evacuation accelerated significantly on Monday.
As fears for those onboard receded, questions began to be asked about how the fire started and why it was not contained.
Bari prosecutor Giuseppe Volpe announced a criminal investigation which will seek to establish whether negligence contributed to the disaster.
The Italian owner of the boat, Carlo Visentini, said he would cooperate fully with the investigation.
He insisted that the vessel, which was leased to Greek operator ANEK ferries, had passed a technical inspection which included its firedoors on December 19.
The Greek passenger who died on Sunday was recovered from the water after he and his wife, Teodora Douli, 56, ended up in the water while trying to reach a lifeboat.
She was rescued alive and helicoptered to a hospital at Galatina near Lecce on Italy's southeastern heel.
"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. "He was bleeding through his nose, perhaps because he banged his head on the side of the ship."
- 'No lifejackets' -
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.
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."
The Italian navy and coastguard worked through the night trying to get people off a boat that was being buffeted by powerful, bitingly cold winds and huge waves.
Despite their efforts, more than 200 people were still onboard at dawn, having spent 24 hours being lashed by sleety rain and gale-force winds and fearing for their lives.
The Italian-owned ship, which was travelling from Patras in western Greece to Ancona in Italy, started drifting off the coast of Albania after a fire ripped through its car deck and puts its steering system out of action.
A flotilla of merchant, coastguard and military ships from Greece, Italy and Albania were involved in what proved to be a fiendishly difficult evacuation operation.
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.
A medical team boarded the ferry early on Monday and distributed thermal blankets to those waiting to be hoisted off.
The crew, headed by Italian skipper Argilio Giacomazzi, 62, were expected to be the last off, in keeping with maritime tradition.