A ferry carrying nearly 500 people caught fire off the Greek island of Corfu yesterday, trapping passengers on the top decks as gale-force winds and choppy seas hampered the evacuation.
Greek and Italian rescue helicopters and vessels struggled to reach the stricken ferry, with nearby merchant ships lining up to form a wall against the raging gusts.
The fire broke out on the car deck of the Italian-flagged Norman Atlantic, traveling from the Greek port of Patras to Ancona, Italy with 423 passengers and 55 crew members on board.
No one has been reported injured and the ship was not in immediate danger of sinking, authorities said.
Passengers, stranded on a high deck for more than six hours, told Greek media that lifeboats from surrounding vessels had been unable to take them off due to the high seas.
“The fire is still burning,” Greek passenger Sofoklis Styliaras told Mega television. “On the lower deck, where the lifeboats are, our shoes were starting to melt from the heat... There’s nowhere else for us to go. It’s impossible to walk on the lower deck because of the heat.”
Greek Merchant Marine spokesman Nikos Lagadianos said a lifeboat carrying about 150 passengers had been lowered into the water, but that only 42 had been moved to a nearby cargo ship so far.
He said 234 passengers and 34 crew are Greek and the rest are of various unspecified nationalities.
Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was in contact with his Italian counterpart, Matteo Renzi, to coordinate the operation “at the highest level,” Greek government officials said, adding that the operation was now under Italian control.
Greek authorities said they had sent five helicopters and a military transport plane to the area to assist in the operation, with the ship reported to be 42 nautical miles (78km) northwest of Corfu.
Italian Coast Guard spokesman Marco Di Milla said the rescue operations would likely last for hours. An Italian Coast Guard boat was at the scene, as well as one helicopter each from the Italian Navy and Air Force.
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