PALERMO, Sicily – A Tunisian airliner that reportedly lost engine power Saturday plunged into the choppy Mediterranean while trying to make an emergency landing in Sicily, and at least 13 people were killed, officials said. At least three of the 39 people on board were missing.
Some of the 23 survivors clung to the wings and fuselage of the Tuninter airline ATR-72 as they screamed to rescuers. The wreckage was battered by 10-foot waves and strong currents, delaying rescuers’ arrival.
“Some people were on the wing, screaming, yelling for help,” said Filippo Morgante, an official with the Palermo fire department, which sent boats out for the rescue.
“Others were on the fuselage, and some were trapped inside the plane. Some weren’t wearing lifejackets. Maybe they didn’t have the time to put them on.”
The pilot and co-pilot survived.
The plane went down about 10 miles off Cape Gallo on Sicily’s north coast, near Palermo’s Falcone-Borsellino airport, authorities said. As divers searched for victims, bits of the passengers’ luggage bobbed by: a black flip-flop, a book and a carry-on bag resembling a picnic cooler.
The rescue operation went into the night, as fire boat crews and coast guard ships searched for the missing. The Italian news agency Apcom, quoting unidentified Palermo mortuary officials, said three bodies were later recovered, raising the death toll to 16, but that report could not immediately be confirmed.
In Tunisia, Tuninter CEO Moncef Zouari told a news conference that 13 people died, three were missing and 23 survived.
At Palermo’s Giaccone Polyclinic, where the bodies were brought, coroner Paolo Procacciati said the victims included nine women, three men and a young girl.
The twin-propeller plane, operated by an affiliate of Tunisair, departed Bari, Italy, for the Tunisian resort of Djerba, which is popular with Italian vacationers.
The pilot radioed Rome airport aviation officials at 3:24 p.m. to report engine trouble and ask permission to make an emergency landing in Palermo, said Nicoletta Tommessile, a spokeswoman for ENAV, Italy’s air safety agency.
Sixteen minutes later, the pilot told tower officials: “We’re ditching in the sea,” Tommessile said.