With the complex evacuation of all those on board now complete, the death toll following a fire on the Norman Atlantic ferry off Greek island, Corfu, has officially risen to eight. Seven bodies were found on the stricken ship, while one man was killed as he tried to escape during a rescue operation.
More than 450 people were rescued on Monday morning in a long and challenging operation where rescue teams battled stormy seas, strong winds, and thick smoke in order to get passengers to safety. Among the last to be rescued was the captain of the ferry, Argilio Giacomazz, who had sent out a distress signal more than 36 hours beforehand. Giacomazzi handed over control of the vessel to Italian navy officers at 2:50 p.m. local time, who then helped take passengers off the ship individually by helicopter.
“Notwithstanding the weather and the darkness, which is another factor, we persisted throughout the entire night,” said Giovanni Pettorino, Italian Coast Guard Admiral.
As of now, it is unclear what caused the fire to break out on Sunday on the car deck of the ferry, which was carrying a total of 478 people – 422 passengers and 56 crew members – from the Greek city of Patras to Ancona in Italy. All of those on board were forced to spend hours being pelted by driving rain, hail, and gale-force winds as they huddled and waited for rescuers on the top deck while trying to avoid the flames and smoke coming from the ignited region below.
“The job that has been done in the past few hours by the women and men from all Italian institutions, and not just Italian ones, is amazing,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said.
“I thank Greek authorities, Albanian authorities, but the work that has been done by our compatriots makes us proud of our flag and our country,” he added. “Their job has been truly impressive.”
A 62-year-old Greek man was one of the eight fatalities to be recovered. He and his wife, Teodora Douli, who was injured, had slipped into the water as they tried to reach a lifeboat.
“I tried to save him but I couldn’t,” Douli, who is 56 years old, told Italian Ansa news agency, adding that her husband might have hit his head as he fell.
Meanwhile, the Italian chief executive of the ferry, Carlo Visentini, has reportedly said the boat was in full working order and had passed all technical tests as recently as December 19th, even with a “slight malfunction” in one of the vessel’s fire doors.
“The tests confirmed that the boat was in full working order,” Visentini said, adding that the fire door had been serviced “to the satisfaction of the inspectors.”
Italian prosecutors announced they have opened a criminal investigation into the disaster and will look into whether negligence played a role in the situation.