The number of people who have died in a blaze that left an Italian ferry stricken off Greece's Adriatic coast has risen to 10, the Italian coastguard has said.

Rescue teams evacuated more than 400 people from the car ferry in a 36-hour operation on Monday.

Italian and Greek authorities continued an air search of the sea around the vessel while they sought to verify the number of passengers who had been on board, fearing that many people could be missing.

The fire broke out on Sunday on a vehicle deck of the Norman Atlantic ferry, whose manifest said should be carrying 478 passengers and crew and more than 200 vehicles. Rescue efforts were complicated by bad weather.

The fire left at least ten people dead, authorities said. Nine bodies were recovered from the water around the stricken Norman Atlantic on Monday, a day after the body of a 62-year-old Greek man was pulled from the heaving sea.

Many of those rescued said the fire triggered panic which the crew appeared ill-prepared to deal with.

One of the first passengers rescued told reporters after arriving in the Italian port of Bari he had thought he was going to die as parts of the ferry, with 478 passengers and crew on board, became engulfed by thick smoke as it travelled from Greece to Italy.

"We did not know what to do. The staff had no idea how to get people off the boat," he said.

"The lifeboats did not work, there was only one of them in the water and none of the crew were there to help people."

Others said they stayed huddled on the vessel's upper decks, pelted by rain and hail and struggled to breathe through the thick smoke.

A passenger recalled people being awakened by "the smell of burning plastic" and that the heat from the fire felt like the floors were "boiling".

The evacuation was completed nearly 36 hours after the fire broke out on the car deck and left the huge vessel drifting dangerously in high seas off the coast of Albania.

'Mystery'

With the evacuation complete, questions are being raised as to how the fire started and why it was not contained.

Bari prosecutor Giuseppe Volpe announced a criminal investigation which will seek to establish whether negligence contributed to the disaster.

The Italian owner of the boat, Carlo Visentini, said he would cooperate fully.

He insisted that the vessel, which was leased to Greek operator ANEK ferries, had passed a technical inspection which included its firedoors on December 19.

Al Jazeera's Simon McGregor-Wood, reporting from Italian coastal city of Brindisi, said what caused the fire remained a mystery.

"But what we do know from various sources is that the fire took hold in the car deck," he said. "There were 200 vehicles of all kinds including several tanker trucks containing olive oil, which it is expected to have contributed to the fire."

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies