30 Dec 2014

Stricken ferry’s fire extinguisher ‘may have failed’

The fire extinguisher system aboard the Norman Atlantic ferry which caught fire off the Greek coast “couldn’t handle” the blaze because of heavy winds, Channel 4 News has learned.

Ten bodies have been recovered from the ferry which caught fire early on Sunday morning.

The Italian navy rescued more than 400 people by helicopter from the ailing wreck drifting off the Greek coast, but Italian authorities cannot verify which other passengers are missing after it emerged that passenger lists could be inaccurate.

People rescued were not on the list Italian investigator

The ferry’s operator said 478 people had been on board the ferry, but the total rescue number came to 427. In addition, dozens of people rescued were not on the ship’s manifest.

Guiseppe Volpe, public prosecutor in the Italian city of Bari, said that there were definitely illegal migrants on board and he feared more bodies would be found in the hold when the ship was towed to Italy.

Channel 4 News has learned that the blaze is thought to have started on deck four of the ferry, after a truck caught fire on the partially-opened deck.

Truck fire

Lt Gianluca La Rosa, the chief investigator of the incident for Italy’s Marine Casualty Investigation Body, told Channel 4 News that the ferry’s owner suspects high winds hindered the operation of fire extinguishers that should have put the fire out.

“All what followed was due to this,” he said.

The blaze was something “the fire extinguishing system couldn’t handle”, he added.

“Maybe it didn’t work properly. Worked, but not properly, because – the owner says – of the very bad weather conditions.”

He said a truck was thought to have caught fire on deck four of the ferry, a part of the vessel exposed to the elements.

The partially open deck was battered by 55 knot winds, Mr La Rosa added, which “may have diminished the capacity” of the fire extinguishers.

The extinguisher system should have operated automatically, but is “also possible to control by the bridge”, he added.

The ferry was inspected by Greek authorities on 19 December “and they found some minor deficiencies” concerning a fire door, he said.

The fault “was rectified” but “anyway, that shouldn’t have affected the situation with the fire”, Mr La Rosa added.

Investigators are still awaiting the black box data from the ferry to provide more information on the cause and spread of the fire.

Passenger list

But Mr La Rosa confirmed there were discrepancies between the passenger list and people on board the ferry.

“The passenger list is not reliable,” he said. “It is difficult to say if there are people to rescue in the sea or not. Maybe there were people embarked without a ticket.”

“As far as I know [some] people rescued were not on the list.”

Italian and Albanian magistrates have ordered the Italian-flagged ferry to be seized to investigate the cause of the fire.

The ferry was chartered by Greek ferry operator Anek Lines, and Italy’s transport ministry said on Monday that Italy and Albania were deciding together where the vessel should be towed.

Italy’s Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi refused on Monday to confirm a Greek report saying 38 people were still missing, saying to do so would be premature.

Two Albanian sailors were killed on Tuesday as tugboats attempted to connect cables to the ferry to help retrieve it.

A cable connecting their tugboat to the wreck broke in high winds and hit the two men.

Mr La Rosa said the two men were not part of the official rescue team, but were trying to retrieve the wreck at their own initiative.