Italy ferry fire: Five people reported dead
- 29 December 2014
- From the section Europe
Five people have died and 59 are still awaiting rescue after a blaze on an Italian ferry off the island of Corfu, Greek officials say.
One man is known to have died trying to escape the ship, and a further four bodies have been recovered from the sea.
Helicopter crews have been winching people to safety despite gale-force winds and thick smoke.
The Italian navy said that 419 of the 478 people on board had been evacuated.
It is still unclear what caused the fire to break out on a car deck on Sunday.
Italian prosecutors announced on Monday that they had opened a criminal investigation into the fire and would look into whether negligence had played a role.
Coast Guard spokesman Nikos Lagadianos said four more people were found dead on Monday. The body of a 62-year-old Greek man had already been recovered along with his injured wife after they fell into the water as they tried to reach a lifeboat.
Teodora Douli, 56, told ANSA news agency that her husband may have hit his head as he fell. "I tried to save him but I couldn't," she said.
The first rescue ship carrying 49 people evacuated from the ferry arrived at the Italian port of Bari early on Monday morning.
Helicopters crews fitted with night vision equipment worked through the night to rescue passengers despite difficult conditions. One hundred people were taken off the ferry during the night, the Italian coast guard said.
Italian Air Force helicopter pilot, Maj Antonio Laneve told Italian state TV that "acrid smoke" had filled his helicopter cabin, making the rescue even more challenging.
Most of the rescued passengers have been transferred to nearby ships, although some have been taken directly to hospital.
A Turkish man who was on board told local reporters that he had seen several bodies before being rescued. "I saw four people dead, with my own eyes," he said.
Three children and a pregnant woman are among those being treated in hospital for hypothermia, according to the Associated Press news agency.
Passengers described panicking as the heat rose, then freezing as they stood on decks awaiting rescue.
The wife of one of the cooks told journalists she had had a call from her husband saying: "I cannot breathe, we are all going to burn like rats - God save us."
Another passenger told Greek TV station Mega: "We are outside, we are very cold, the ship is full of smoke, the boat is still burning, the floors are boiling, underneath the cabins it must be burning since 5 o'clock, the boats that came (to rescue us) are gone, and we are here. They cannot take us."
The BBC's James Reynolds says that emergency workers in the port of Brindisi had waited late into the night for rescued passengers to arrive but strong winds had forced rescue vessels to try to dock elsewhere on the Italian coast.
Coast Guard Adm Giovanni Pettorino said that a member of the Italian military had been injured during the rescue.
Nearby merchant vessels aligned themselves in formation to protect the ship from waves and facilitate the rescue.
"This is a complicated rescue mission. The visibility is poor and the weather conditions are difficult, but we are confident because there are a good number of ships in the area," Greece Merchant Marine Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis said.
Mr Varvitsiotis later told reporters the fire had been brought partly under control.
Most of those on board were Greek. Greek maritime official Nikos Lagadianos told AP that 234 passengers and 34 crew members were from Greece.
Others came from Italy, Turkey, Albania, Germany and several other countries. Four British nationals have been rescued from the stricken ferry, according to the UK Foreign Office.
The chief executive of the Visentini group that owns the vessel, Carlo Visentini, said the ferry had passed a recent technical inspection despite a "slight malfunction" in one of the fire doors, Italy's Ansa news agency reports.
"The tests confirmed that the boat was in full working order," he said, adding that the fire door had been repaired "to the satisfaction of the inspectors".
Ferries are an important mode of transport between Greece's hundreds of islands as well as neighbouring countries.