Of the nine Salute to Excellence Awards distributed each year during Heli-Expo, the Sikorsky Humanitarian Service Award stands out because it honors those who use helicopters for the missions that Igor Sikorsky first envisioned: saving lives. The Italian coast guard’s 2nd Nucleo Aereo; the Italian navy’s Gruppo Elicotteri 1 and Gruppo Elicotteri 3; and the Italian air force’s 15th Stormo 84th and 15th Stormo 85th Centro CSAR were awarded the Sikorsky Humanitarian Service award during Heli-Expo 2016, for their part in a massive marine helicopter rescue mission off the coast of Italy in the last days of 2014.
On Dec. 28, 2014, the car ferry Norman Atlantic had just left a Greek port with approximately 487 passengers, 200 vehicles and 12 crew aboard, bound for Southern Italy, when a fire broke out on the car deck.
The Italian-flagged ferry, chartered by Greek ferry operator Anek Lines, was sailing from Patras in western Greece to Ancona in Italy. Just 15 days earlier Greek authorities had cited the owner for numerous safety violations relating to emergency lighting, fire doors and lifesaving capacity on board the vessel. The owners had been served with a notice giving them 15 days to remedy the deficiencies.
The flames spread quickly among the gasoline- and diesel-filled cars and trucks on two decks, yet no alarm sounded, according to passengers. Heat and smoke chased passengers and crew out onto open decks where they were pummeled by howling winds and rain. Hypothermia was rampant. Only one lifeboat, with 49 aboard, was launched. Flames and smoke swamped the others.
The fire burned out of control through the night. By morning the ship listed, bellowing black smoke, adrift in heavy seas and gale-force winds. Rescue teams faced dense smoke, rough seas and high flames fanned by winds of more than 40 knots, which made a ship-to-ship rescue impossible. Two crew were killed during the attempt to rig towing cables to the vessel.
As the ferry burned, five helicopter units from the Italian air force, navy, and coast guard mounted one of the largest marine helicopter rescue missions ever attempted. While fireboats sprayed water on the flames in an attempt to put the fire out, the helicopters airlifted first the injured, then the youngest and most vulnerable passengers and finally all of the crew to safety over the course of 72 hours. When it was done, although a dozen people lost their lives, more than 420 passengers and crew were airlifted by the Italians from the Norman Atlantic to nearby ships taking part in the rescue effort. The exact number airlifted is complicated by the fact that numerous stowaways were onboard, making the passenger manifest reference material, at best.
The ferry was eventually towed via tug to Brindisi, Italy, when the weather died down. It continued to smolder for days as firefighters fought hotspots and searched for more stowaways inside the superstructure.