PALERMO, Sicily – A Tunisian airliner that reportedly lost engine power Saturday plunged into the choppy Mediterranean (search) while trying to make an emergency landing in Sicily (search), 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 (search) 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 carryon 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 told The Associated Press 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.
Waves as high as 10 feet and strong winds rocked the fuselage, Palermo port authority official Paolo Maioli said.
"The rescuers had to struggle against the wind, so the rescue times suffered a delay of at least 10 minutes in bringing help," Maioli said.
He said it took rescuers 40 minutes to arrive in their boats.
Fire department diver Salvatore Milazzo said the front end and tail of the plane had broken off when he arrived. Looking shaken and exhausted, he said divers pulled four bodies from the water — including a crew member in uniform — while police and coast guard boats recovered more.
"We freed a body which was trapped inside" the fuselage, Milazzo said, but it was unclear if he was referring to a victim or survivor.
SKY TG24 TV said the pilot survived and told ENAV officials that the engines lost power, but Tommessile said she could not immediately confirm that.
The pilot and co-pilot were among the survivors, said Giuseppe Ganci, a doctor at Palermo's Civic Hospital. He told the TV network that X-rays performed on the co-pilot found no major injuries, while the pilot had a neck injury.
Earlier, ENAV spokesman Adalberto Pellegrino said the aircraft was apparently intact when it hit the water.
Palermo Prosecutor Piero Grasso, who was at Palermo's port as survivors and bodies were being taken off rescue ships, said authorities ruled out terrorism.
Hours later, the tail broke off from the main wreckage, rescuers said. A large piece of the blue-painted fuselage was tossed by the choppy seas and kept afloat by a yellow flotation device attached to one end by divers.
Tunisian officials said all the passengers were Italian, and SKY TG24 said most were from the Puglia region in the heel of the boot-shaped Italian peninsula. Palermo port official Vincenzo Pace told SKY TG24 that some bodies were found several miles from the wreckage after apparently being carried away by the current.
"The divers have confirmed that there are no bodies inside" the wreckage, Pace said.
Italian prosecutors will investigate any possible criminal cause, such as negligence, which might have forced the plane down. ENAV also was investigating.
Nine survivors were in serious condition, said Capt. Giuseppe Averna of the Italian border police's sea division.
Five survivors, including a young girl, were taken to Villa Sofia hospital, emergency room doctor Giuseppe Pumilia said. Many of the survivors were reported to be in shock, and others suffered broken bones, cuts and bruises, doctors said.
The ATR-72, which was built in France, has a two-person crew and seats up to 74 passengers. Its maiden flight was in 1988.