A ferry carrying 411 passengers and 55 crew caught fire during its Greece to Italy route on Sunday.
The Italian-flagged Norman Atlantic, which belongs to the Greek ferry line ANEK, sailing from Patras in western Greece to the Italian port of Ancona, was 33 nautical miles off the small island of Othonoi when it sent a distress signal, Greek coastguard officials said.
They said rough seas and high winds were hampering the rescue operation.
Norman Atlantic7Passengers talking to Greek television stations gave dramatic testimonies of conditions on the ship, which caught fire just before 6.00 a.m. local time (0400 GMT) while traveling from Patras in western Greece to the eastern Italian city of Ancona.
“They tried to lower some boats, but not all of us could get in. There is no coordination,” one said. “It’s dark, the bottom of the vessel is on fire. We are on the bridge, we can see a boat approaching… we opened some boxes and got some life vests, we are trying to save ourselves.”
Greek Merchant Marine Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis said 35 passengers had been transported in a life boat to a nearby Greek ferry so far, adding that the rescue effort had been hampered by gale-force winds.
Norman Atlantic5“This is a complicated rescue mission … The visibility is poor and the weather conditionas are difficult, but we are confident because there are a good number of ships in the area,” Varvitsiotis said.
Greek government officials said Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was in contact with his Italian counterpart, Matteo Renzi, to coordinate the operation ‘at the highest level’.
Marco Di Milla, Italian coastguard spokesman, said the rescue operation was likely to last for hours.
Norman Atlantic3The fire broke out in the garage of the vessel, which can carry around 220 vehicles, just before 6.00 am. local time (0400 GMT).
Greek television network Mega said there were tankers holding olive oil in the bay.
Six helicopters and two rescue vessels are in the area and are evacuating passengers from the ship. At least seven merchant ships which were in the area at the time of the fire breaking out have joined the rescue effort and are being used to form a barrier against the high winds.