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Death Toll Hits 13 in Greek Car Ferry Fire


Italy says all the remaining passengers have been rescued from the car ferry that caught fire off the island of Corfu, but the death toll from the Adriatic Sea disaster reached 13 on Tuesday, with officials fearing there are more bodies on board.

Italian prosecutor Giuseppe Volpe, who is leading a criminal investigation into the disaster, says at least three stowaways were among the survivors, calling them "incontrovertible" evidence that illegal migrants were hidden on the boat.

The Italian-flagged Norman Atlantic was sailing from Patras, Greece, to Ancona, Italy, on Sunday when fire broke out on the deck carrying cars near the island of Corfu. Survivors say the fire was hot enough to melt their shoes as they stood on the upper decks waiting to be rescued. They say the crew appeared to have no idea what to do.

Five bodies were recovered Monday after rescue workers hoisted the last survivors to safety. Rescuers also found another body on board the ferry Tuesday.

Airborne Italian and Greek rescue workers continued to search the waters near the vessel without knowing how many more, if any, might be missing. The exact number of people who were on the ferry is still unclear because of discrepancies between the number of reported passengers, exactly how many were rescued, the possibility of stowaways, or perhaps that some ticket holders never boarded the vessel. The boat's manifest listed 478 passengers and crew, and Italy said 427 had been rescued.

Volpe has ordered the burned-out vessel towed to Italy.

Ship's captain

The ship's captain, Argilio Giacomazzi, upheld centuries of maritime tradition, staying on the Italian-flagged Norman Atlantic until everyone else had been rescued. Italian naval authorities prepared to tow the ferry to port.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi praised the efforts of the rescue workers, saying they prevented "a slaughter at sea."

Officials said more than 400 passengers were rescued from the ship, with workers in helicopters plucking survivors off the top deck of the ferry, lifting them to safety. High winds, frigid temperatures and rough seas hampered the 24-hour evacuation operation.

Map showing location of Greek ferry fire
Map showing location of Greek ferry fire

Survivors described a chaotic scene aboard the vessel after the fire broke out Sunday on the car deck and left the ferry drifting in stormy seas after the blaze incapacitated its steering system.

They said crew members seemed ill-prepared to deal with the sudden emergency.

'Chaos' and 'panic'

One survivor, a Greek truck driver, described how the rescue scene had been “chaos” and “panic.” He said passengers had been frantic to escape the flames and pelting rain - and trampled each other to get onto helicopters.

One survivor said the fire spread rapidly.

Survivor Demir said, "The information we got ... everything went off. The only thing they said was 'Fire! Fire! Fire!,' and we didn't know why there was a fire. Yes, there was a fire, but there was not enough time, and there was little we could do, in five minutes the whole ship was on fire."

Most of those on board were Greeks, but others hailed from Italy, Germany, Britain and elsewhere.

Briton Susan Dalton said her daughter and two grand-children were rescued from the ship - but that her youngest granddaughter had been taken to a hospital.

“She was suffering from hypothermia because they didn't even manage to get a coat out of the cabin before they had to go on deck," Dalton said.

Admiral Giovanni de Tullio of the Italian coast guard said every passenger would be examined.

De Tullio said the passengers appeared to be in good health but would be assessed to determine if they needed hospital treatment.

Investigation begins

Heavy smoke continued to billow from the ferry hours after the fire was contained.

The cause of the fire has yet to be determined.

An Italian prosecutor announced that he is opening a criminal investigation into the accident, to see whether negligence contributed to the incident.

Officials say the ship had been inspected on December 19 in Patras and minor flaws had been corrected, including a problem with a fire door.

Selah Hennessy contributed to this article from London. Some information for this article came from Reuters and AP.

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