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.
He said an analysis of the fuel put in the plane's tanks in Bari, on Italy's Adriatic coast, before takeoff did not detect impurities. Another possibility for the engines failing was a loss of fuel, he said, while other officials spoke of a possible mechanical problem feeding the fuel to the engines.
"All hypotheses are open, except that of sabotage," he said listing a technical breakdown, weather factors, structural defects, operational problems and human error as possibilities.
Thirteen bodies had been recovered by Sunday afternoon and were being identified by relatives flown in from Bari. They were to be sent home after coroners finished autopsies.
Teams were searching by air and sea for the bodies of two or three people. One official said recovering the bodies might be difficult because they could be trapped inside part of the plane that was still submerged: both the tail and the nose sank after impact.
Emergency crews also hadn't found the flight data recorder, said Gaspare Prestifilippo, a division chief at the Palermo port.
The aircraft, carrying 34 passengers and five crew members, went down Saturday 10 miles off Sicily's Cape Gallo on the island's north coast.
The pilot contacted aviation officials at 3:24 p.m. reporting engine trouble and asked to make an emergency landing in Palermo. At 3:40 p.m. he said he was ditching the plane in the sea because he could not reach the airstrip, Tuninter director Tlili Mohamed Ali said in Tunis.
The flight had departed from Bari, Italy, for the Tunisian resort of Djerba, popular with Italian vacationers.
Of the 23 survivors, 16 were treated at the Civic Hospital, but none was in a life-threatening condition, said Dr. Mario Re, head of the intensive care unit.
Overnight, authorities hauled the mangled fuselage out of the sea, its two wings and engines intact.