PALERMO, Italy -- As the second engine of the small propeller plane stopped, Roberto Fusco rushed to put on his life jacket and brace for an emergency landing. Then the ATR-72 plunged into the choppy waters off the Sicilian coast, its nose and tail snapping off on impact.
''As soon as we heard the crash, the water rushed in," Fusco, 24, said yesterday, a day after the Tuninter flight went down while carrying Italian vacationers to Tunisia. ''It was very fast. There was no preparation."
Fusco was one of 23 survivors on the flight. At least 13 died in the crash, and authorities searched by air and sea yesterday for three other people believed missing.
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," Fusco said. ''He had blood all over his face."
The wreckage was battered by 10-foot waves and strong currents.
At 3:24 p.m. Saturday, Gharbi radioed Rome airport tower officials to report engine trouble and ask permission to make an emergency landing in Palermo. Sixteen minutes later, he told tower officials he was ditching in the sea because he could not reach the airstrip, officials said.
Some survivors said the engines went silent, one after the other, in the seconds before the aircraft went down in the Mediterranean 10 miles off Cape Gallo on Sicily's northern coast. There were 34 passengers and five crew members on board.
Survivors said there was panic and confusion in the moments before the plane crash-landed.
Fusco said the copilot, in faltering Italian, warned passengers of the emergency landing minutes before the plane hit the water. He said he had to find a second life jacket after he found that the one under his seat was missing a strap.
The flight had departed from Bari, southern Italy, for the Tunisian resort of Djerba and was about half-full.
Authorities quickly recovered 13 bodies. Officials said finding the remaining bodies might be difficult because they could be trapped inside a part of the plane that was still submerged: the tail and the nose sank after impact.
Officials investigating the crash inspected the wreckage of the twisted central section of fuselage yesterday after it was hauled ashore at Palermo's harbor, the wings and engines still attached. But emergency crews had not found the flight data recorder.
Officials said the plane had been in service for about 13 years, had been checked as recently as March without problems.
The pilot was among five people with serious but not life-threatening injuries. He suffered a broken vertebra and trauma to the head and chest, said Dr. Mario Re, chief of the intensive care unit at Civic Hospital.