The burnt-out wreck of the Norman Atlantic ferry was Thursday on its way back to Italy, for an inspection aimed at establishing the full scale of the disaster.
Tugboats began pulling the blackened ship towards the southern port of Brindisi in late afternoon after weather conditions in the eastern Adriatic eased, maritime tracking websites showed.
Bari prosecutor Giuseppe Volpe ordered the Italian-owned vessel to be towed to Brindisi so that it can be searched for corpses and for clues as to what caused the huge fire that erupted on board on Sunday.
The fire led to the deaths of at least 13 people and there are fears the final toll could be higher amid uncertainty over how many people were actually on board.
The 60-mile (96-kilometre) crossing to southern Italy was expected to see the ferry arrive in Brindisi at midday Friday at the earliest.
Volpe has said he expects to find more bodies on board, notably because he suspects there were more stowaways on board than the three — two Afghans and a Syrian — who were rescued by the Italian coastguard on Monday.
It is also feared some passengers who were sleeping when the fire erupted may never have made it out of their cabins.
Several survivors have said the fire was blazing before any alarm sounded. Others were woken by smoke or other passengers banging on their doors.
– Numbers unclear –
Anek Lines, the Greek company which chartered the ferry, has given three different figures for the number of passengers and crew it thinks were on board, the most recent total being 474.
Volpe said Wednesday he thought 499 had been the true total, made up of 478 on Anek’s first list, plus 18 extra passengers who were squeezed on to the overbooked vessel at the last minute and three stowaways rescued by the Italian coastguard.
The coastguard on Thursday revised upwards from 427 to 477 the number of people taken off the boat alive.
That followed cross-checking with all the various military and merchant ships which were involved in ferrying passengers winched off the Norman Atlantic to ports in Greece and Italy over the course of four days.
The list has been sent to Greece for comparison with the initial passenger list.
The 13 confirmed dead so far include 11 passengers and two Albanian seamen killed in an accident during the rescue operation.
The bodies of nine of the passengers have been recovered while two other victims were identified as dead in the water but floated out of reach of rescuers.
The Italian navy scaled back its search for bodies with seven helicopters returning to base late on Wednesday, although a navy ship and one helicopter remain in the area.
– ‘Don’t call me a hero’ –
Argilio Giacomazzi, the ferry captain hailed as a hero for being the last man off the boat, finally made it home on Thursday after being extensively interrogated by Volpe.
The skipper could face manslaughter charges if he is deemed responsible for any of the apparent problems with the loading of the ferry and the crew’s reaction to the emergency.
Emerging briefly from his home near the Italian Riviera port of La Spezia, Giacomazzi asked to be left alone.
“Don’t call me a hero. I wish I could have got everyone on board home safely,” he said.
– Soprano survivor –
One of the disaster’s survivors, Greek soprano Dimitra Theodossiou, on Thursday returned to the stage, singing in a production of Verdi’s “Nabucco” in Rimini.
“Music is what has helped me overcome these tragic moments I went through on the ferry: I just could not wait to get back on stage,” she said before going on. “I will dedicate this performance to all those who survived and also those who did not.”