Eight people died and several may be missing after rescue teams completed the evacuation of 427 people following a fire on an Italian ferry traveling from Greece to Italy, defying rough seas and high winds.
“It has been an extremely complicated operation,” Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti said at a press conference with navy and coast guard officers and Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi.
It was too early to know the exact number of missing because some of those rescued weren’t on the original passenger list and because some passengers may have gotten off at an earlier stop, Lupi said. Greek weekly newspaper To Vima reported that 38 people may be missing.
An Italian-led operation put out the fire that broke out yesterday and also docked a tugboat to the Norman Atlantic ferry to help stabilize the vessel that departed from the Greek port of Patras en route to Ancona, Italy, with 422 passengers and 56 crew members listed. The Italian Navy’s Twitter account showed images of rescue helicopters taking off in harsh weather which allowed for rescues of only a few people at a time.
Naval authorities at the Rome press conference described high seas, flames that rose from the lower part of the ship up to some of the higher decks, and violent winds of over 40 knots that caused concern the ship might topple over. Rescue operations lasted over 34 hours after a fire broke out at 4:00 a.m. local time yesterday in the car-parking area. Italian authorities said it was still too soon to comment on the causes of the fire.
The ferry boat’s captain was the last to leave the ship as rescue operations ended, the Italian Coast guard said in a Twitter post.
Italian media pointed out the stark contrast between his behavior and that of Francesco Schettino, captain of cruise ship Costa Concordia who abandoned ship before all passengers were safe when his vessel rammed into rocks and partially sank off the Tuscan coast on Jan 13, 2012.
Greek Shipping Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis said at a news conference yesterday that one of the victims died while trying to flee the ferry. The Italian Coast Guard said most of the rescued passengers were transferred to cargo ships in the area and that others were taken to Italy.
The next step will be to tow the ferry to safety, a difficult task due to high seas and strong winds that can break the cables used to tug the vessel, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said today during a press conference in Rome. Maritime salvage operator Boskalis Westminster NV (BOKA) said it has sent 15 employees and 12 tons of material and pumps.
“We’re awaiting instructions by the Italian navy to approach the ship,” Boskalis spokesman Martijn Schuttevaer said by phone. “We expect to board the ship either later today or tomorrow morning at daylight.”