Strong winds, choppy seas and thick smoke pounded the efforts.
In the end, at least 10 people died, the Italian coast guard said on Monday. But many more were saved -- 427 -- the coast guard said.
Ute Kilger was one of those who survived.
"We were wet and cold, and the rain was like needles," she said. "There was always these explosions and this feeling you have in your feet. It goes through your body."
Talking to CNN in donated Red Cross pajamas, she stumbled over her words: "It was unreal, but I knew it is so real. This was really bad, to really know, it is real."
The Italian coast guard earlier said that all remaining passengers had been evacuated from the vessel, with the boat's commander finally leaving the ship at 2:50 p.m. Monday. The coast guard said it was inspecting the ship and deciding how to transport it -- and where.
The public prosecutor in Bari, Italy, said he had requested the seizure of the ship as part of a criminal investigation. Authorities are waiting for authorization from Albanian officials to release the ship, because it is in Albanian waters.
Giuseppe Volpe, the prosecutor, added that the owner and the captain of the ship will be notified of the investigation. No charges have been filed.
More than 400 passengers were traveling on the Norman Atlantic between the Greek port of Igoumenitsa and the Italian port of Ancona when the fire began, apparently in the ferry's parking bay.
'Dying of cold'
In the first three hours of the fire, around 150 people were able to escape via the vessel's lifeboats. But when the ferry lost power, the electronic arms were unable to function, leaving the rest of the boats dangling uselessly by its side.
After waiting for hours in rough conditions, one Greek man told Italian state broadcaster RAI TV that passengers were "dying of cold and suffocating from the smoke," and that their feet were burning from the heat of the flames.
Helicopters with night vision equipment worked through the night to pull passengers off the ferry, one by one.
An Italian navy medical team boarded the ship to aid passengers, some of whom had been suffering hypothermia and smoke inhalation, the navy said. The already cold conditions were worsened by the spray from tugboat hoses as authorities attempted to douse the flames.
A freighter carrying 49 rescued passengers arrived at the port of Bari on Monday. Photos showed survivors wrapped in emergency foil blankets being carried away on stretchers.
One man died after he jumped or fell into the cold water, authorities said. It is unclear how the other victims died.
'Prisoners on a burning ship'
Dramatic cell phone images filmed by a passenger showed flames through shattered portholes, while a wider view released by rescuers showed a huge plume of thick, black smoke streaming from the stricken vessel.
Many passengers were unable to reach the lower decks because of the heat, and the water below was so cold that jumping clear of the ferry was not an option.
Sea surface temperatures had been around 14 to 15 degrees Celsius (57 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit), CNN meteorologist Tom Sater said, which would have limited the survival time in the water to six hours at most.
Passengers told Greek and Italian newsgroups they had felt like "prisoners on a burning ship."
It's not known how the fire started, but it is believed to have originated in the parking bay. A truck driver told the Greek news media that trucks filled with oil were "packed like sardines," their cargo scraping the ceiling, which could have set off sparks in rough seas to start a fire, he surmised.
Greek authorities said the vessel's fire doors appeared to have failed, which allowed the flames to spread quickly.