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Italian firefighters board tragic ferry as 19 people remain missing

More than 450 people have been rescued from the ship.

Image: AP/Press Association Images

Updated: 10.45pm

WEARING GAS MASKS against the smoke, Italian firefighters and investigators boarded the charred Norman Atlantic ferry today and retrieved a data recorder they hope will help them discover what caused a deadly blaze.

But with some parts of the ferry still burning, they emerged hours later to admit they must put off for at least a day the search for any more bodies in the maritime disaster that has already killed 11 people. The team will attempt to go back onboard tomorrow.

Greek officials say 19 people are still unaccounted for after a fire broke out Sunday as the ferry traveled from Greece to Italy, and disputes Italian claims of a higher number of missing. Italy says 477 passengers and crew were rescued from the burning ferry, most by helicopters operating in gale-force winds.

Both nations fear the ferry car deck where the fire started could contain more bodies, possibly those of unregistered migrants trying to slip into Italy.

The badly damaged ferry was towed for 17 hours across the choppy Adriatic Sea before docking Friday at the southern Italian port of Brindisi. A second tug was tied in with the ship to stabilize the wreck. One side of the ferry was blackened by smoke and an acrid smell was noticeable dockside.

Ghost ship

It marked the second such drama in days for Italy, which is struggling with a record wave of migrants making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, after the navy on Wednesday stopped another crewless “ghost” ship with hundreds of migrants on board.

Today’s rescue bid involved the 73-metre-long livestock carrier the Ezadeen, which was meant to be travelling between Famagusta in northern Turkish-controlled Cyprus and the southern French port of Sete, the navy said.

A shipping website, however, said the Sierra Leone-registered vessel had begun its voyage in the Syrian port of Tartus. Thousands of the refugees who have ended up in Italy this year had fled the war-torn country, but most have come via North Africa.

Prior to apparently running of fuel, the almost 50-year-old ship had been moving at a brisk seven knots and had been spotted by a coastguard plane 80 miles offshore shortly after nightfall.

Coastguard

A woman refugee on board was able to operate the ship’s radio and told the coastguard that the crew had jumped ship, Italian navy spokesman Captain Filippo Marini said.

“We are alone, they is no one, help us!” she cried, he said.

The coastguard asked for assistance from Icelandic patrol boat Tyr, which was in the area on a mission with Frontex, the European Union’s border agency.

The Tyr was able to draw alongside the runaway ship, but the weather conditions made boarding impossible.

The Icelandic vessel has three doctors on board who are waiting to be winched on to the merchant ship by helicopter to treat any unwell passengers, the air force said.

 Series of dramas

On Wednesday Italian sailors intercepted a freighter carrying nearly 770 migrants which had been drifting towards the rocks off Italy’s southeastern shore on autopilot, abandoned by the people smugglers who had steered it from Turkey via Greek waters.

The Moldovan-registered Blue Sky M cargo ship got to within five miles — or 45 minutes sailing time — of a disaster before six navy officers were lowered on to the ship by helicopter and succeeded in bringing it under control.

The vessel’s human cargo included some 60 children and two pregnant women, one of whom gave birth on board as the boat steamed towards catastrophe, according to the Italian Red Cross.

Many of the migrants on the ship were treated for hypothermia and broken limbs.

Commenting on today’s incident, the UNHCR Europe Bureau Director, Vincent Cochetel said that the use of large cargo ships is a new trend, but one that is ongoing and “worrying”. He said that European Governments can no longer ignore the situation.

We need urgent European concerted action in the Mediterranean Sea, increasing efforts to rescue people at sea and stepping up efforts to provide legal alternatives to dangerous voyages. Without safer ways for refugees to find safety in Europe, we won’t be able to reduce the multiple risks and dangers posed by these movements at sea.

Additional reporting Christina Finn and Associated Press

Originally published: 12.49

© – AFP 2015

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