One of 12 passengers missing on an Italian cruise liner off Corfu has been found alive, 53 hours after the ferry caught fire en route to Brindisi.
Rescuers who boarded the stricken vessel found the man, a 21-year-old Belarusian lorry driver, in the stern of the vessel, whom teams were trying to calm. Temperatures on the Italian-flagged Euroferry Olympia had topped 600C as firefighters battled to put out the fires that had been raging since Friday.
The trucker’s first words were “tell me if I’m alive,” according to local media.
Footage of the Belarusian climbing down a stepladder unaided has raised hope for the 11 passengers still missing, Greek Transport Minister Ioannis Plakiotakis has said.
The men, all lorry drivers, are believed to have been sleeping in the cabs of their lorries when the fire broke out on a car deck on the third level at 4.12am.
Intense heat and high winds had hampered rescue efforts on Saturday, but with both diminishing, it was hoped the operation could resume on Sunday. Authorities said the 183m Grimaldi Lines ferry was being slowly towed by tugboats to a port in North Corfu.
Two hundred and eighty people, including two migrants not on the passenger list, managed to flee the ship in lifeboats soon after the inferno erupted. Flames moved at high speed from the car deck to the passenger deck after the blaze broke out hours after the liner set sail from Igoumenitsa, the largest port in western Greece, with 239 passengers and 51 crew members officially on board.
Rescued passengers said that once it became clear the fire could not be brought under control and the flames reached the passenger deck, “panic and chaos” erupted on board.
“It was so unreal, it was a bit like the Titanic, but it was real,” David Waller, a 58-year-old trucker, told Reuters.
Another truck driver, described as Albanian, said he believed death had “come for me”.
“There was so much smoke. I thought we wouldn’t make it,” he told Greek public television. “It took us about an hour and a half to get into the lifeboats and about three more hours to be picked up.”
Many said they lost everything in the fire, listing passports, money, luggage, trucks and vehicles.
An Italian Finance Police boat, which was in the area, was credited with playing a key role in the rescue operation, with the country’s President Sergio Mattarella personally calling the commander of the unit of finances to thank him. Local fishing boats also rushed to the scene to search for people who may have jumped in the water.
The ferry captain and two mechanics appeared before a prosecutor on Saturday as a legal investigation was officially opened. Greek officials have described the incident as the worst maritime disaster since 2014, when the Italian passenger ferry Norman Atlantic caught fire in the Adriatic Sea, killing up to 22 people – including migrants who had snuck aboard –.
Athens’ shipping ministry said once the fire is out, the Euroferry Olympia will be towed to safety so its tanks can be emptied to avoid an environmental disaster in the area.