Some of the 23 survivors said the engines had gone silent, one after the other, in the seconds before the crash, and they barely had time to put on their life jackets before impact. They spoke of chaos inside the cabin of the Tuninter ATR-72 and of swimming through debris and dead bodies to get to safety.
"I took a breath of air and then I felt the water rushing onto me," Passenger Roberto Fusco told The Associated Press at the Palermo hospital where he was being treated for minor cuts and bruises. "I took off my seat belt and was able to make my way to the surface."
"It was very fast," he said. "There was no preparation and no effort (by the crew) to calm us," he added.
Standing with bandaged arms and legs outside the Villa Sofia hospital, Fusco said he unclipped his seat belt, took a deep breath and swam through the frigid water to the surface. Another passenger helped him and his girlfriend onto a wing, where they waited to be rescued.
Also on the wing was the plane's pilot, identified by the Tunisian airline as Chafik Gharbi. The pilot "was in a terrible state. He had blood all over his face," Fusco said.
Italian Transport Minister Pietro Lunardi called for tougher standards for charter planes, saying existing controls needed to be reinforced. Palermo's chief prosecutor, Piero Grasso, said the incident was clearly a technical breakdown.
Officials said the plane had only been in service for about 13 years, had been checked as recently as March without problems, and came from a country Tunisia that observes international air safety standards.
"The breakdown of both engines is a completely atypical occurrence," the head of Italy's civil aviation agency, Commander Silvano Manera, told the AP.