Greek ferry survivors tell of terror on burning ship; death toll at 10
By Christina Boyle
LONDON — Shocked passengers rescued from a fire-damaged Greek ferry on Monday described terrifying and chaotic scenes on board as gale-force winds, choppy seas and plumes of dense smoke hampered rescue efforts.
People stuck on the Norman Atlantic were forced to stand on the freezing deck for hours as the vessel tilted and the fierce below-deck blaze started “cooking everybody’s feet.”
They were pelted by heavy rain and hail, and thick smoke filled the air, making it difficult to breathe.
“We experienced the Titanic,” passenger Saadet Bayhan told Turkey's NTV television. “The only thing missing was that we didn't sink.”
The Italian coast guard said on Twitter late Monday that 10 people had died in the incident off Corfu in the Adriatic Sea, and that 427 had been rescued. Earlier, Italian Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi was quoted as saying that those rescued included 56 crew members.
There were discrepancies between the names and number of passengers on the ship's manifest compared with the survivors, raising speculation that some of those on board may have been traveling illegally.
British equestrian Nick Channing-Williams, who was among those trapped, described sending text messages to loved ones when he thought the situation was taking a turn for the worse.
“There was a queue all the way down the stairs and people in mass panic,” he told the BBC.
“Lifeboats were dropping into the sea. People were throwing themselves into them. It was quite a panic situation,” he said.
“The fire was basically cooking everybody's feet. And everyone was in a queue to get on a lifeboat. With the heat just being so enormous, people just panicked. I didn't even try and get on one.”
One of the dead is believed to be a 62-year-old Greek man who fell into the water as he and his wife tried to reach a lifeboat. His wife, Teodora Douli, 56, told Italian news agency ANSA that her husband may have hit his head as he fell.
“I tried to save him but I couldn't,” she said.
The captain of the ferry was the last to be rescued, more than 36 hours after sending out a distress signal.
The Greek and Italian prime ministers separately sent their condolences to the victims and praised rescue workers.
The “massive and unprecedented operation saved the lives of hundreds of passengers following the fire on the ship in the Adriatic Sea under the most difficult circumstances,” Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras said.
Italy's Matteo Renzi said “a slaughter at sea” had been avoided.
It is unclear what started the fire, which broke out Sunday on the car deck. The craft was heading from Patras, Greece, to Ancona, Italy.
Helicopter crews equipped with night vision apparatus had attempted to rescue passengers through the night despite the treacherous conditions, but some of the pilots’ cabins became engulfed in dense and acrid smoke.
Many of the survivors were taken to the southern Italian port of Bari and were visibly relieved to be back on land. Some were sent to hospitals, and three children and a pregnant woman were among those being treated for hypothermia, according to the Associated Press.
The ferry had passed a recent technical inspection despite a “slight malfunction” in one of the fire doors, said Carlo Visentini, chief executive of the Visentini group, which owns the vessel, according to ANSA.
“The tests confirmed that the boat was in full working order,” he told the news agency. He said the fire door had been repaired “to the satisfaction of the inspectors.”
Boyle is a special correspondent.