Dozens still stranded on Italian ferry

At least five killed and dozens more await evacuation from stranded ferry that caught fire off Greek island of Corfu.

    Dozens of freezing passengers and crew remain trapped on an Italian ferry that caught fire off the Greek island of Corfu with 478 people on board.

    Nikos Lagadianos, Greek coast guard, said four more people were found dead on Monday. The death toll now has gone up to five, while at least 391 have been rescued so far.

    A cargo ship with 49 survivors, the first big group to reach land, arrived in Italy's Bari port on Monday. It was expected overnight in nearby Brindisi, but rough seas forced a change in plans.

    Italian and Greek military have been conducting the rescue mission since the Norman Atlantic sailing from the Greek port of Patras to Ancona in Italy gave distress signal on Sunday.

    At least one person died and two were injured in the incident.

    "Despite the smoke, the dark and the horrible conditions, rescue activities continued without stop throughout the night," Italian navy Captain Riccardo Rizzotto said on Monday.

    Coping passengers

    Passengers huddled on the vessel's upper decks, pelted by rain and hail and struggling to breathe through the thick smoke, passengers told Greek media by phone.

    "We are outside, we are very cold, the ship is full of smoke,'' Giorgos Stiliaras, a passenger, told Greek Mega TV.

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

    Hercules Haralambides, the president of the Brindisi Port Authority, said blankets had been provided to the passengers by rescue crews. Medical personnel had also boarded to check on passengers and crew and none reported major injuries, the Greek coast guard said.

    Rizzotto said the ultimate destination of the stricken ferry was unclear. Some Italian officials said it would likely be towed to an Italian port, even though it was currently closer to Albania.

    "The priority now is to rescue the crew and passengers as quickly as possible," Rizzotto told Italy's Sky TG24 television station.

    Six 'deficiencies'

    The ferry was last inspected by the Patras Port Authority on December 19 and six "deficiencies" were found, but none were so grave as to keep it in port, according to the report on the European Maritime Safety Agency's website.

    The deficiencies involved a "malfunctioning" fire door as well as "missing" emergency lighting and batteries and defective "watertight doors".

    The ship manufacturer, Carlo Visentini, was quoted by the ANSA news agency as saying that only one of the 160 fireproof doors was found to be problematic in the inspection and that it was located above the fire zone.

    Visentini said the problem was fixed immediately to the satisfaction of the inspectors.

    It was not clear whether the condition of the vessel has contributed to the start of the fire.

    Al Jazeera's Simon McGregor-Wood, reporting from Italian coastal city of Brindisi on Monday, said that "the initial spark in this fire remains 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."

    Prosecutors in the Italian port of Bari opened a criminal investigation on Monday to examine whether negligence contributed to the disaster.


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