After a harrowing night of wind, rain and choking smoke caused by a fire onboard a Greek ferry boat, all passengers and crew have been evacuated from the vessel, which remains adrift in the Adriatic Sea between the coasts of Italy and Albania.
Italian and Greek military and coast guard rescue crews battled gale-force winds and massive waves as helicopters plucked small groups of people and whisked them to safety aboard any of ten mercantile ships waiting nearby.
At least 414 people were rescued from the ferry, and seven people died in the accident. There were reports of five fatalities but the Italian Coast Guard said Monday that two more bodies were recovered, bringing the death toll to seven.
The vessel’s captain and four Italian sailors remained on board to assist in rescue operations, Italian Premier Matteo Renzi said Monday. But by the afternoon, authorities said all crew members had left the boat.
One Greek man died after becoming trapped in a lifeboat chute, but the circumstances of the other six deaths were unclear. Several passengers also suffered injuries and were being treated at nearby hospitals.
A cargo ship with 49 people evacuated from the Norman Atlantic arrived in the Italian port of Bari on Monday, the first big group to reach land after rough seas forced the initial plan of docking down the coast in Brindisi to be scrapped.
The first to disembark in Bari was an injured man wrapped in a yellow striped blanket and wearing bandages around his bare feet, helped down the ship’s ladder by two rescue workers.
Other evacuees, many wrapped in blankets, made their way slowly down the ladder with assistance, some thrusting their hands in a victory sign as they waited their turn. Among them were four children. TV crews and relatives gathered on the docks below in near silence.
The evacuees then boarded bright red fire department buses. Officials have said hotels have been booked for them around town.
The BBC reported that an Italian air force pilot who participated in the rescue told state television that his helicopter’s cabin filled with smoke from the fire, adding another degree of difficulty to the operation.
The Italian Navy said a man and his injured wife were transported by helicopter to the southern Italian city of Brindisi. The Greek Coast Guard said the pair — both Greek passengers — was found in a lifeboat rescue chute.
Other survivors had been taken to southern Italian hospitals in smaller numbers in the hours immediately after the rescue operation got underway. Several were treated for hypothermia, some for mild carbon monoxide poisoning and one woman suffered a fractured pelvis, officials said.
Dr. Raffaele Montinaro at the hospital in Lecce said the three children taken there were in “excellent” condition, and emergency room doctor Antonio Palumbo said a pregnant woman was also in good condition.
“For sure they are scared,” said Eligio Rocco Catamo, manager of the Copertino hospital. “But I should say that I was impressed by the calm and the serenity they are showing.”
A local convent was housing survivors who were released from the hospital.
Helicopters rescued passengers throughout the night, completing 34 sorties with winds over 40 knots (46 miles per hour). The Greek coast guard said seven people had been airlifted from the ferry to Corfu.
Those remaining on board were given thermal blankets and found places to wait protected from the elements `’even if the conditions remain very difficult,” Pettorino said.
The fire broke out before dawn Sunday on a car deck of the Italian-flagged Norman Atlantic, carrying 422 passengers and 56 crew members. All day and night, passengers huddled on the vessel’s upper decks, pelted by rain and hail and struggling to breathe through the thick smoke.
The second injury was to a member of the Italian military involved in the rescue operation, Pettorino said.
Pettorino said two Italian tugs tried to attach themselves to the ferry in the evening, but were frustrated by the thick smoke. Eventually the tugs managed to attach the line to stabilize the ferry, ANSA reported.
Passengers described scenes of terror and chaos when the fire broke out as they slept in their cabins.
“They called first on women and children to be evacuated from the ship,” Vassiliki Tavrizelou, who was rescued along with her 2-year-old daughter, told The Associated Press.
Dotty Channing-Williams, mother of British ferry passenger Nick Channing-Williams, said she had managed to speak to her son before he and his Greek fiancee were airlifted to safety. She said she had complained to her son that there was no information available for families.
“He said `Well, it’s an awful lot worse for us because we’re actually standing out here in the pouring rain, and thunder and lightning, and we really just don’t know exactly what’s going to happen.”‘
Italian navy Capt. Riccardo Rizzotto said the ultimate destination of the stricken ferry was unclear. Some Italian officials said it would likely be towed to an Italian port, even though it was currently closer to Albania.