Hundreds trapped as ferry burns in heavy seas off Greece

Italian and Greek helicopter crews worked into the night to airlift passengers off a burning ferry adrift in the Adriatic Sea, battling darkness and bad weather that hampered rescue efforts by other ships throughout Sunday.

Helicopters were plucking passengers off the Italian-flagged Norman Atlantic and transferring them to a nearby vessel, after a dramatic day that began when a fire broke out on its lower deck in the early hours.

Authorities said one Greek man had died and there were reports of four injured among 478 passengers and crew and as night fell. The Italian navy said 190 people were clear of the danger zone, with 287 still on board.

The Italian coastguard said the fire on board had been “tamed” and the ship was being stabilised by cables attached to a tug in order to assist rescue operations, which remained extremely difficult in rough seas and strong winds.

The ship will be towed to a nearby port after cables are securely attached but an official from the Italian navy said it had yet to be decided whether this would be in Italy or Albania, following conflicting statements from officials in Greece, Albania and Italy.

The ferry is just 13 miles (21 km) from the Albanian port of Vlore but an Italian navy spokesman said it might be towed to either Otranto or Brindisi in the southeastern heel of Italy.

The airlifts would continue while the boat was being towed towards port, and rescue workers would try to get closer by boat to bring people off if conditions allowed, Greek Shipping Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis told reporters.

“It will be a very difficult night and I hope that everything will go well and we will rescue all passengers and all crew members,” Varvitsiotis said.

The Italian navy said two Italian air force helicopters, one Greek Superpuma helicopter and an Italian plane were taking part in the rescue, winching up passengers in small groups. Other aircraft and 10 ships were also taking part in the operation in support roles.

Earlier, Greek coastguard spokesman Nikos Lagkadianos said the heavy rain that was hampering the rescue had helped contain the fire although the ship was still burning.

Terrified passengers told how they had to move higher and higher in the ship to escape the flames.

“We went to the deck where there were life boats, but at some point we felt the floor burning and we went higher up to the heliport,” Rania Fireou told Greek television by phone before the airlifts began.

“There are many children and elderly people aboard,” she said. “We have gathered all together and we are trying to warm ourselves.” 

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