A photo grab taken from a video made available by the Guardia costiera, Italy's coast guard organization on December 28, 2014, shows the burning ferry
A photo grab taken from a video made available by the Guardia costiera, Italy's coast guard organization on December 28, 2014, shows the burning ferry "Norman Atlantic" adrift off Albania. AFP PHOTO - HO - GUARDIA COSTIERA

Ten bodies recovered from ferry as MP blasts firms

THE bodies of 10 people who were travelling on board the ferry which caught fire off the island of Corfu have been recovered, coast guards said yesterday, as Italian prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into the causes of the disaster.

A fire broke out on the car deck of the Norman Atlantic early on Monday as it sailed from the Greek port of Patras to Ancona in Italy.

One man was killed trying to escape from the ship, with a further nine bodies recovered yesterday. Hundreds of people were rescued from the smoking ferry, which was carrying 422 passengers and 56 crew members, in a lengthy operation made more difficult by gale-force winds.

Helicopter crews fitted with night vision equipment worked overnight on Sunday to rescue passengers.

Six Britons are understood to be among those saved, including Nick Channing-Williams, who had been travelling with his Greek fiancée Regina Theoffili.  The 37-year-old said yesterday he had been "absolutely terrified" and at some points did not think he would survive the ordeal.

"When flames are licking up around the boat and they are talking about sending for a boat that is going to be four hours away, you feel somewhat helpless," he told Sky News.

"I did send a couple of text messages out to people because I sort of had convinced myself that we were going a little bit the wrong way."

He added that he and Ms Theoffili had spent hours standing on deck to avoid the heat and fumes from the fire. As night fell on Sunday and the chances of rescue became more remote, he said people started to panic.

"The fire was basically cooking everybody's feet and everyone was in a queue to get on a lifeboat," he said.

"With the heat just being so enormous, people just panicked. I didn't even try and get on one. Regina and I were stood upstairs and just hoped for the best, really."

Christos Perlis, a Greek lorry driver, described the scene on board as "chaos".

"Everyone there was trampling on each other to get to the helicopter. 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," he said.

A criminal investigation has been opened into the disaster, which will examine whether negligence played a role.

An inspection of the ferry on 19 December reportedly noted six faults, including a lack of approved evacuation plans and a problem with one of the fire doors.

Its current owner, the Italian firm Visemar, said the fire door problem was rectified and the vessel was "fully operational" when it set off on its voyage.

But the Italian MP Mauro Pili, who recently submitted a report criticising ferry safety, said the tragedy was "the result of the shameful traffic in used ships across the Mediterranean".

He was referring to the rapidity with which vessels change hands. Just five years old, the Norman Atlantic was said to have been on its sixth operator.

Mr Pili added: "In European waters, anything goes. There's too much silence, too much money-making and not enough controls."