January 2, 2015 / 10:39 AM / 3 years ago

Burnt-out ferry towed to Italy after deadly blaze

The Norman Atlantic multi-deck car-and-truck ferry is seen docked at Brindisi harbour, after a fire broke out on it off the coast of Greece, January 2, 2015. Tug boats hauled the burnt-out hulk of the ferry to the southern Italian port on Friday, opening the way for an investigation into the cause of the blaze that killed at least 11 people.Ciro De Luca

BRINDISI, Italy (Reuters) - Tug boats hauled the burnt-out hulk of a ferry that caught fire off the coast of Greece into a southern Italian port on Friday, opening the way for an investigation into the blaze that killed at least 11 people.

Listing visibly to starboard, the Norman Atlantic multi-deck car-and-truck ferry docked in the port of Brindisi in the early afternoon, still smoldering.

The fire broke out on Sunday on one of the lower garage levels and left the vessel drifting without power in stormy seas. It took Greek and Italian rescue teams 36 hours to evacuate 477 passengers and crew from the ship amid strong winds.

Most were winched into helicopters from the upper deck of the ship as the blaze raged below, but dozens may still be missing, possibly including unauthorized migrants not listed on the ship's manifest, Italian officials have said.

"Given that the ship was indisputably carrying illegal migrants who were probably hidden in the hold, we fear that we'll find more dead people once we recover the wreck," Giuseppe Volpe, the Italian prosecutor leading the investigation into the cause of the fire, said earlier this week.

Reports of the number of missing have varied widely. The Greek coastguard said on Thursday that 18 were still unaccounted for. Volpe said on Friday the number of people missing was around 10-15, having previously said it may be as high as 98.

Investigators will only be able to descend to the lower decks once the vessel is fully secured but black box recorders were recovered and will be examined for clues, said officials.

In his end-of-year address, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi praised the rescue effort and complimented the ship's captain, Argilio Giacomazzi, for staying on board until the ship was fully evacuated.

But several rescued passengers have criticized the handling of the emergency.

Leonidas Constantinidis, a Greek lorry driver with a bandaged arm and apparent burn marks on his face, told Reuters he had jumped overboard to save himself and was picked up by a nearby merchant ship.

"Where I was I did not hear any siren, any alarm. Nothing seemed to work, the fire sprinklers, the fire extinguishers, nothing was working," Constantinidis said.

Six people -- the captain, three crew members, the ship's operator and its owner -- are under investigation by a Bari court for multiple manslaughter and causing a ship disaster, judicial sources said on Friday.

Additional reporting George Georgiopoulos in Athens, Vincenzo Damiani in Bari, and Steve Scherer, writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Larry King and Andrew Heavens

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