One dead, hundreds stranded on burning ferry off Greek island

Hundreds of freezing passengers huddled on the top deck of the ship told of their terror in calls to Greek television stations.

ATHENS // A ferry carrying nearly 500 people caught fire off the Greek island of Corfu on Sunday, killing one and trapping hundreds of passengers on the top decks as galeforce winds and choppy seas hampered their evacuation.

Desperate passengers pleaded via mobile phone to be saved from the burning ferry.

But with gusts of up to 100 kilometres per hour making rescue difficult and dangerous, the crew has so far only managed to get 150 of the 478 people off the stricken Norman Atlantic, Greek officials said.

Freezing passengers huddled on the top deck of the ship told of their terror in calls to Greek television stations.

“We are on the top deck, we are soaked, we are cold and we are coughing from the smoke. There are women, children and old people,” a passenger Giorgos Styliaras told Mega TV.

Another told the station that “our shoes were melting” from the heat of the fire when they were mustered in the ship’s reception area.

The fire broke out on the car deck of the Italian-flaggedvessel, travelling 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.

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.

With high winds and torrential rain and sleet, Greek authorities described efforts to rescue the passengers “as particularly difficult and complicated”.

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.

Merchant marine minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis said the coastguard was in constant contact with Italian authorities and the Greek armed forces.

Vessels close to the ferry, operated by Anek Lines, rushed to give assistance after picking up its distress signal at 0200 GMT, the Greek coast guard said.

“We are committed to rescuing everyone on the ship, and are trying to ensure that nobody will be left unaided,” he said.

Greek authorities said they had sent five helicopters and a military transport plane to the area to assist in the operation.

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 one helicopter each from the Italian Navy and Air Force.

Eight merchant ships were next to the Norman Atlantic as part of the rescue effort, and being used to form a barrier against the high winds of up to 88kph.

Lagadianos said two Greek Coast Guard tugboats and two firefighting vessels were also heading toward the ship. A Greek frigate was being sent to the area, as well as Italian Navy ships that are much closer. Flying overhead were a C-130 military transport plane, five helicopters and a Super Puma helicopter, the spokesman said. Later, authorities said that high winds had forced the helicopters to be grounded.

Haulage company boss Giannis Mylonas, who was in contact with three of his drivers on the vessel, said there were between 20 and 25 tanker trucks filled with olive oil on board.

“They are taking too long to find a way to help them. Let’s hope this ferry will stand the heat of the fire,” he said.

* Associated Press and Agence France-Presse

Published: December 29, 2014 04:00 AM

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