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Ferry passengers recount chaos

They faulted the crew. The number aboard is in dispute. At least 10 died.

BARI, Italy - There were no fire alarms at first, no knocks on the door from the crew, just thick, acrid smoke filling cabins and waking passengers on the overnight ferry from Greece to Italy.

In the chaos that followed, passengers said, they received virtually no instructions from the crew. Women and children first went out the window, and passengers started pushing and shoving and came to blows over seats in the lifeboats and helicopter baskets.

"Everyone there was trampling on each other to get onto the helicopter," Greek truck driver Christos Perlis told the Associated Press by telephone from one of the rescue vessels summoned after the Italian-flagged ferry caught fire in the Adriatic Sea off Albania early Sunday.

Italian and Greek helicopter rescue crews Monday evacuated the last of the known survivors aboard the crippled, fire-blackened vessel, bringing the number rescued to 427.

But the death toll climbed to at least 10, and rescuers searched below deck and scoured surrounding waters for more possible victims amid discrepancies in the ship's manifest and confusion over how many people were aboard.

The vessel's operator, Anek Lines, said 475 were on the ferry. But Italian officials said the names on the manifest may have represented just reservations, not passengers who boarded. Also, Adm. Giovanni Pettorino of the Italian navy said 80 of those rescued weren't on the list at all, giving credence to suggestions from the Italian premier that the ferry may have been carrying a number of immigrants illegally trying to reach Italy.

"We cannot say how many people may be missing," Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi said at an evening news conference.

The blaze broke out on the car deck of the Norman Atlantic while the ferry was traveling from the Greek port of Patras to Ancona in Italy. The cause of the fire was under investigation. Salvage crews went aboard to assess the damage.

The Italian military congratulated itself for a remarkable around-the-clock rescue operation in horrendous weather: 46 m.p.h. winds, high seas, choking smoke, and the dark of the Adriatic night. Hundreds of passengers and crew members, and two dogs, were plucked from the decks in helicopter baskets as the fire raged below.

But passengers had no praise for the mostly Italian crew, saying they were left to fend for themselves. Several said they knew to get out of their cabins only because other passengers banged on their doors or because they couldn't breathe from the smoke.

Late Monday, Italy's transport ministry sequestered the ferry, saying Italian and Albanian authorities would decide which port to bring it to amid dueling jurisdictions over any criminal or civil liability.