Rome : Helicopters worked through the night to pull hundreds of terrified and exhausted passengers from a ferry that caught fire while traveling in rough seas from Greece to Italy, but on Monday the dramatic rescue descended into questions about how many people were still missing.
The Italian transport and defense ministers said that 427 people had been rescued and the bodies of eight victims had been recovered from the Norman Atlantic.
Greek authorities said that there were 478 passengers and crew on board, a difference of 43. The Italian ministers said they were continuing search operations, but would not comment on how many were missing.
“It is up to the Greek authorities to say, we [Italy] don’t know,” said Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi.
The fire broke out around four in the morning on Sunday in the parking area of the ferry traveling from the Greek city of Igoumenitsa to the Italian port of Ancona. Many passengers who were in their cabins asleep when the fire alarms sounded were forced to crowd onto the top deck.
Television images showed thick smoke billowing from the vessel, which was drifting in the Adriatic about 50 miles off the Italian port town of Brindisi, but officials said the blaze was gradually brought under control. Five other ships aligned themselves in formation to protect the Norman Atlantic from high waves.
Greek and Italian rescuers flew about six passengers at a time to other vessels. Survivors described a nightmarish night as the burning ship was pounded by waves and whipped by a hailstorm.
“It was like a scene from hell,” a Greek woman told television channels by phone early Monday. “The deck was burning under our feet. It is a miracle that we survived.”
“There was lot of smoke; people were fainting because of the smoke,” said an unnamed Turkish survivor, in comments broadcast on Italian TV from the Italian port of Bari, where some survivors were taken. “Some fell into the water.”
By midafternoon on Monday, only the captain was on board, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said, while there were also four Navy officials from the rescuers, who were searching the ship for anyone trapped inside.
Mr. Renzi lauded the rescuers, pointedly noting that the captain had stayed with the ship, a reference to the 2012 Costa Concordia cruise disaster off the coast of Italy in which the captain abandoned ship.
“Differently from previously, this time the captain was the last one to leave the boat,” Mr. Renzi said. “This has been a sensational [rescue] operation and I would like to thank rescuers for their work.”
An Italian Navy spokesman said plans to tow the ship to a port are on hold as the priority is to recover all the passengers. He added that the ultimate destination of the damaged ferry was unclear.
Helicopters and planes, coast guard and commercial vessels were involved in the rescue operation, which was being coordinated by Italian authorities.
The first ship with 49 of the rescued passengers docked in Bari early Monday.
Local media reported that prosecutors in Bari have opened an investigation into possible negligence. The Bari prosecutor’s office declined to comment when contacted by telephone.
A pregnant woman and three children were among those treated for hypothermia. Greek maritime official Nikos Lagadianos said that 234 passengers were Greek, with others including Italians, Turks, Germans, Bulgarians, Austrians, French and others.
Rescue boats couldn’t be deployed from the Norman Atlantic as waves prevented vessels in the area from getting close enough to rescue passengers, a Greek merchant marine ministry official said.