The death toll in the Greek ferry fire has risen to 10 and rescuers are checking to see if anyone else might still be missing.
Italy’s transport minister Maurizio Lupi said 427 people have been rescued, including 56 crew members. The original manifest listed 478 passengers and crew.
Mr Lupi said it was premature to speculate on whether people were still missing, but suggested there might have been some people who reserved a spot on the ferry but did not board.
He said officials were checking the manifest against the names of the 427 rescued.
An official said that among the survivors, there were people not listed on the manifest, indicating the possibility that some on board were travelling illegally.
Helicopters defied high winds, stormy seas and darkness to transfer hundreds of passengers to waiting cargo ships after fire broke out on the Norman Atlantic on its journey from the Greek port of Patras to Ancona in Italy.
Greek prime minister Antonis Samras said the “massive and unprecedented operation saved the lives of hundreds of passengers following the fire on the ship in the Adriatic Sea – under the most difficult circumstances”, while Italian premier Matteo Renzi said the “impressive” rescue efforts prevented “a slaughter at sea”.
Italian authorities said two boats were remaining in the Adriatic Sea to continue the search for people who might still be missing, while a priority was placed on comparing the list of those rescued and dead with the passenger list to determine how many people, if any, might still be unaccounted for.
Passenger accounts painted a picture of a panicked reaction as the fire spread, with passengers choking on the smoke and struggling to figure out how to reach safety as they suffered searing heat from the ship’s floors and driving rain outside. Prosecutors in Bari have opened an investigation into how the fire started.
The fire broke out before dawn yesterday on a car deck of the Italian-flagged Norman Atlantic, and 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 first cargo ship to reach the mainland with survivors, the Spirit of Piraeus, arrived in Bari with 49 aboard.
The first to disembark 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 gingerly down the ladder with assistance, some thrusting their hands in a victory sign as they waited their turn. Among them were four children.
The evacuees then boarded fire department buses, and officials said hotels had been booked for them around town.
Survivors were taken to southern Italian hospitals in smaller numbers in the hours immediately after the rescue operation got under way. Several were treated for hypothermia, some for mild carbon monoxide poisoning and one woman suffered a fractured pelvis, officials said.