After 36 hours aboard a Greek ferry boat in wind, rain and choking smoke, 427 passengers and crew were rescued from the vessel between the Italian and Albanian coasts after it caught fire.
At least 10 people were killed in the fire, which resulted in a day-and-a-half-long rescue mission on rolling seas, according to news reports.
The fire broke out on Sunday on a car deck of the Norman Atlantic ferry, whose manifest said it should be carrying 478 passengers and crew and more than 200 vehicles, according to the Maritime Executive.
Rescue efforts were complicated by bad weather.
"It was hell," Dimitra Theodossiou, a Greek soprano opera singer, told Italy's la Repubblica newspaper. She was evacuated by helicopter during the night.
"It was very cold, terribly cold. Nearby ships sprayed water from their hydrants [to fight the fire] and we were completely wet," she said.
She was treated for a mild case of hypothermia at a hospital in Lecce, Italy, and later released.
Early Monday, a group of 49 exhausted people arrived in Bari after they were rescued. Passengers described the harrowing chaos that ensued for hours until the rescue.
The Italian captain, Argilio Giacomazzi, abandoned the ship after everyone else had been evacuated, Italian Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi said.
Fifty-six crewmembers were evacuated; 234 of the passengers rescued were Greek, 54 were Turkish, 22 were Albanian and 22 were Italian, Lupi said.
He would not confirm a report from Greece that said 38 people were still missing.
Ourania Firaiou told Greek Mega TV that passengers spent more than 20 hours without water or supplies.
"All we could do was stay close to each other for warmth and give each other support," Firaiou said. "We asked for water for a passenger who was unwell, but got no response from the crew."
Yiorgos Dimopoulos, a truck driver speaking to Mega TV, described how quickly the fire spread and confirmed it was highly likely that other drivers had planned to sleep in their trucks that night on the ferry, according to a USA Today report.
Alexandro Tziourtziotis, one of the chefs from the Norman Atlantic ferry, called his wife Sunday afternoon after the fire spread, she told a press conference on state TV NERIT. He told her, "I can't breathe. We're burning alive like rats, God help us. I love you," before the line went dead.
Turkish passenger Saadet Bayhan, speaking to Turkey's NTV television from a rescue ship, confirmed there were no fire alarms and that passengers woke one another. "We experienced the Titanic. The only thing missing was that we didn't sink," she said.
Of the 10 dead, one Greek man died Sunday trying to get into a lifeboat with his wife, who survived, and four bodies were recovered from the sea on Monday. The circumstances and identities of the others were not known.
Teodora Douli, 56, told the ANSA news agency that her 62-year-old Greek husband may have hit his head as he fell. "I tried to save him, but I couldn't," she said.