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More bodies may be found on ferry


Rescuers assist a passenger from the crippled ferry after arriving at the harbour at Bari (AP)

Rescuers assist a passenger from the crippled ferry after arriving at the harbour at Bari (AP)

Rescuers assist a passenger from the crippled ferry after arriving at the harbour at Bari (AP)

Prosecutors in Italy say they fear more bodies will be found aboard the crippled Greek ferry Norman Atlantic, adrift for a third day after a fire broke out on a car deck, with 10 people killed in the ensuing chaos.

Bari prosecutor Giuseppe Volpe has ordered the ferry, currently drifting off the Albanian coastline, to be towed to the southern Italian port of Brindisi as part of a criminal investigation.

Mr Volpe says it is likely other bodies will be found in the cargo areas given "incontrovertible" evidence that illegal migrants were on board.

Salvage companies were working to secure tow lines to begin moving the ferry, but were hampered by high winds and seas. Two Albanian tugboat crew members died today, apparently struck by a tow line that snapped.

Rescuers have been searching the waters around the crippled ferry and below deck for more possible victims amid confusion over how many people were aboard.

The death toll had already climbed to at least 10, and Italian and Greek helicopter rescue crews evacuated the last of the 400-plus known survivors aboard the fire-blackened vessel.

But there were serious discrepancies in the ship's manifest, and officials warned there could still be people missing.

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The vessel's operator, Anek Lines, said 475 were on the ferry, but Italian officials said the names on the manifest might have represented just reservations, not actual passengers who boarded.

Italian admiral Giovanni Pettorino said 80 of those rescued were not on the list, giving credence to suggestions from the Italian premier that the ferry might have been carrying a number of immigrants illegally trying to reach Italy.

Italian transport minister Maurizio Lupi said: "We cannot say how many people may be missing."

The blaze broke out on the car deck of the Norman Atlantic while the ferry was travelling from the Greek port of Patras to Ancona in Italy.

The fire caused thick, acrid smoke to fill cabins, waking passengers on the overnight ferry from Greece to Italy.

In the chaos that followed, passengers said they received virtually no instructions from the crew.

The principle of women and children first went out of the window, and passengers started pushing and shoving and came to blows over seats in the lifeboats and helicopter baskets.

"Everyone there was trampling on each other to get on to the helicopter," Greek truck driver Christos Perlis said.

Another Greek passenger, Irene Varsioti, said: "The jungle law prevailed. There was no queue or order. No respect was shown for children."

Greek truck driver Afrosini Bezati feared several colleagues had died because they chose to sleep in their rigs where the fire broke out rather than take cabins upstairs.

"I considered doing the same thing, to leave my room after having a shower and going down to sleep in the truck," she said as she arrived at Elefsina air force base near Athens aboard a military plane. "They were stuck and could not get out."

The Italian military congratulated itself for a remarkable around-the-clock rescue operation in horrendous weather - 40 knot (46mph) winds, high seas, choking smoke and the dark of the Adriatic night.

Hundreds of passengers, crew members and two dogs were plucked from the decks in helicopter baskets as the fire raged below.

As they waited to be rescued, they were drenched by cold winter rain and firefighting hoses, while their feet burned from the flames below.

Greek passenger Chrysostomos Apostolou, a civil engineer who had been on holiday with his wife and sons, aged eight and 14, said: "I witnessed an image of hell as described by Dante, on a ship where the decks were melting and we were trying to find some place that was not burning to stand on."

Some passengers suffered hypothermia, others mild carbon monoxide poisoning, but the first big group to reach land - 49 people who came ashore in Bari just after dawn yesterday - walked off the rescue ship on their own, exhausted and draped in blankets to ward off the cold.

Admiral Giuseppe De Giorgi hailed the Italian ferry captain, Argilio Giacomazzi, for staying on board to see the evacuation through, in striking contrast to the skipper in Italy's last maritime disaster.

Captain Francesco Schettino is on trial on charges of manslaughter and leaving the ship early in the 2012 wreck of the Costa Concordia, in which 32 people were killed.

But passengers had no praise for the mostly Italian crew, complaining they were left to fend for themselves.

Two Afghans and a Syrian were among 49 who disembarked in Bari yesterday morning, one of whom had already asked for political asylum, Mr Volpe said.

"Our fear is that unfortunately once the wreck is recovered, we'll find other dead people on board," he added.

A ship carrying 39 survivors was diverted from the southern Italian port of Manfredonia to Taranto because of poor weather, adding another 12 hours or more to their journey to dry land.

The survivors include five children and three people who are injured.

Italian and Greek authorities have both announced criminal investigations into the cause of the blaze, but Italian prosecutors have secured jurisdiction over the case from Albanian judicial authorities, citing the ship's Italian owner and Italian captain.

Italian judicial authorities have enlisted local tug company Barretta to take charge of taking the Norman Atlantic to Brindisi. No timeframe was given, but Mr Barretta said it could arrive within a day.

The ship owner's insurance company has also contracted Dutch salvage firm Titan to secure the wreck.

Crews are still going through the vessel to extinguish any remaining fire.

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