All the surviving passengers have now been evacuated from the stricken Corfu ferry which caught fire in the Adriatic, with five people now confirmed to have died, according to the Greek coastguard.
Helicopters defied high winds, stormy seas and darkness Monday to pluck hundreds of passengers from the Greek ferry that caught fire off Albania, as survivors told of a frantic rush to escape the flames and pelting rain.
Exhausted and cold from their ordeal, 49 passengers reached land on Monday in the southern Italian port of Bari, more than 24 hours after fire broke out on a car deck of the ferry making a journey from the Greek port of Patras to Ancona in Italy.
Helicopters worked night and day plucking passengers off the stricken vessel and ferrying them to 10 or so mercantile ships nearby that were summoned to help.
One Greek man died on Sunday after becoming trapped in a lifeboat chute. Greek Coast Guard spokesman Nikos Lagadianos said four more people were found dead on Monday, but the circumstances of their death and identities were not immediately clear.
The Greek and Italian premiers separately expressed their condolences to the victims and gratitude to the rescue workers. Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samras said the "massive and unprecedented operation saved the lives of hundreds of passengers following the fire on the ship in the Adriatic Sea — under the most difficult circumstances," while Renzi said the "impressive" rescue efforts prevented "a slaughter at sea."
Passengers accounts emerging Monday painted a picture of a panicked reaction as the fire spread, with passengers choking on the smoke and struggling to figure out how to reach safety as they suffered both searing heat from the ship's floors and driving rain outside. Prosecutors in Bari were opening an investigation into how the fire started.
A Greek truck driver, reached by The Associated Press aboard one of the rescue vessels, described the rescue scene as "a chaos, a panic." He said the fire alarm came after most passengers, alerted by smoke filling their cabins, had gone outside, and that there was no crew in sight to direct passengers.
"Our feet were burning and from the feet up we were soaked," Christos Perlis, 32, told AP by telephone.
When rescue helicopters arrived, Perlis said passengers began to panic. "Everyone there was trampling on each other to get onto the helicopter," said Perlis, who said he and another man tried to impose order.
"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," Perlis said. He said he reached safety after jumping in a helicopter basket carrying a girl.
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Turkish passenger Saadet Bayhan, speaking to Turkey's NTV television from a rescue ship, confirmed that there were no fire alarms and that passengers woke each other up. "We experienced the Titanic. The only thing missing was that we didn't sink," she said.
Another rescued Turkish passenger, Aylin Akamac, told the state-run Anadolu Agency from a hospital in Brindisi that the rescue operation was disorganised and that there were only three lifeboats on the ferry.
"Those who got out first got on the lifeboats," she said, while the others were made to wait. "We were soaked from the water they doused to extinguish the fire. Our feet froze. People were forced to move closer to the fire to keep warm. We waited outside for hours."
Most evacuees were to be brought to shore later after the rescue was completed, Greek officials said, but one of the cargo ships, the Spirit of Piraeus, left ahead of the pack, reaching Bari just after 7:30 a.m. (0630 GMT) Monday with 49 survivors aboard. The first to disembark was an injured man wrapped in a yellow striped blanket and wearing bandages around his bare feet, helped down the ship's ladder by two rescue workers.
Other evacuees, many wrapped in blankets, made their way gingerly down the ladder with assistance, some thrusting their hands in a victory sign as they waited their turn. Among them were four children. The evacuees then boarded bright red fire department buses. Officials have said hotels have been booked for them around town.
Survivors were also taken to southern Italian hospitals in smaller numbers in the hours immediately after the rescue operation got underway. Several were treated for hypothermia, some for mild carbon monoxide poisoning and one woman suffered a fractured pelvis, officials said. A local convent was housing survivors who were released from the hospital.
"Notwithstanding the weather and the darkness, which is another factor, we persisted throughout the entire night," Italian coast guard Admiral Giovanni Pettorino told Sky TG24.
The family of British showjumper Nick Channing-Williams said they were "extremely relieved" after he was rescued from the ferry.
Mr Channing-Williams called his family in Berkshire to say he had been taken to a hospital in Italy and was on his way to being reunited with his Greek fiancee, Regina Theoffili.
His stepfather, Steve Jobar, said: "We believe he has been helicoptered to the mainland and taken to the same hospital as Regina."
Mr Channing-Williams was one of a number of Britons among the 422 passengers and 56 crew members on board the ferry. Mr Jobar said Mr Channing-Williams, who trains young horseriders in Athens, borrowed a phone while he was in an ambulance and briefly spoke to his mother, Dottie, to tell her he is safe.
His family were contacted by Italian Air Force Captain Paolo Papi, who they believe is co-ordinating which hospitals the rescued passengers are being taken to, to tell them Mr Channing-Williams was safe.
The captain even sent them a photograph of him stood next to the grinning but soot and oil-blackened Briton to prove he was well. Mr Jobar said: "Captain Papi rang Dot as soon as he had found where Regina had been taken and he did the same thing when Nicholas had been taken off the ferry.
"Although we haven't spoken to Nicholas to ask him, we believe a helicopter took him straight from the ferry to the mainland, to the same hospital where they had taken Regina.
"He (the captain) said 'I will send you a picture of him as well'. It was a little bit hard to believe. The picture of him when it came was totally black - all he had was two little white eyes. They have obviously spent a whole day or more choking on the fumes and the oily smoke - he was completely oily.
"He said the first thing he wants to do is have a shower. We spoke to him very, very briefly. Captain Papi said he has gone off to have a shower and then he was going off to find Regina."
Mr Jobar said the family had received a text message from Mr Channing-Williams earlier today via one of his friends in Athens.
"It said that he thought there were only six of them left on board and he couldn't see any more ships," Mr Jobar said. "They could see helicopters, but they thought they had been abandoned."
The family believe he was one of six people who were trapped at the front of the ferry as they helped rescuers attach ropes to the front of the vessel to tow it to safety.
Mr Jobar said: "We think he was helping the crew get one of the tug lines attached to the ferry. They were up the end of the ship away from the rest of the passengers and got stranded up there. They thought everyone else had been taken off. They had been trying to help the crew through the night.
"We are extremely relieved and exceptionally happy he is safe."