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Evacuation of Greek ferry complete, Italian premier confirms

Posted at 6:52 AM, Dec 29, 2014
and last updated 2014-12-29 09:36:39-05

The evacuation of the Greek ferry that caught fire off Albania has been completed, and only the vessel's captain and four Italian sailors remain on board to assist in the operation, Italian Premier Matteo Renzi said Monday.

Renzi said they would remain on the ferry to try to hook it up to a tug boat.

Helicopters defied high winds, stormy seas and darkness Monday to pluck hundreds of passengers from the ferry as survivors told of a frantic rush to escape the flames and pelting rain.

The navy said the latest numbers indicate 414 people have been rescued from the ferry, and five bodies removed.

The ferry company had originally said there were 478 passengers and crew on board the ferry. Officials couldn't immediately explain the discrepancy between the numbers.

The dead included a Greek man who died after becoming trapped in a lifeboat chute, and four others whose bodies were recovered from the sea Monday, the Greek Coast Guard said. Their identities or the circumstances of their deaths were not immediately known.

Exhausted and cold from their ordeal, 49 passengers reached land Monday in the southern Italian port of Bari, more than 24 hours after fire broke out on a car deck of the ferry making a journey from the Greek port of Patras to Ancona in Italy.

The Greek and Italian premiers separately expressed their condolences to the victims and gratitude to the rescue workers. 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 Renzi said the "impressive" rescue efforts prevented `'a slaughter at sea."

Passengers accounts emerging Monday 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 both searing heat from the ship's floors and driving rain outside. Prosecutors in Bari were opening an investigation into how the fire started.

A Greek truck driver, reached by The Associated Press aboard one of the rescue vessels, described the rescue scene as "a chaos, a panic." He said the fire alarm came after most passengers, alerted by smoke filling their cabins, had gone outside, and that there was no crew in sight to direct passengers.

"Our feet were burning and from the feet up we were soaked," Christos Perlis, 32, told the AP by telephone.

When rescue helicopters arrived, Perlis said passengers began to panic.

"Everyone there was trampling on each other to get onto the helicopter," said Perlis, who said he and another man tried to impose order.

"First children, then women and then men. But the men, they started hitting us so they could get on first. They didn't take into consideration the women or the children, nothing," Perlis said. He said he reached safety after jumping in a helicopter basket carrying a girl.