ATHENS (AFP) - Rescuers battled in the dark on Sunday to save nearly 300 passengers trapped on a burning Italian ferry as coastguards reported the first death in the high-seas drama.
By late evening, Italian Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi said the flames were under control while the Italian navy said 190 people of the 478 on board had been evacuated.
"It's going to be a long night," Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said on Twitter.
Throughout the day, strong winds and choppy waters hampered efforts by teams from Greece, Italy and Albania to retrieve more passengers from the "Norman Atlantic".
The blaze, which sent huge clouds of smoke into the air, was said to have started on the ferry's car deck in the early hours when the vessel was some 44 nautical miles northwest of the Greek island of Corfu.
A Greek passenger who had fallen from an escape chute into the Adriatic Sea with his wife was found dead by Italian coastguards, despite repeated attempts at an air rescue amid six-metre waves. His wife was safely plucked from the water and transferred to the Italian port of Brindisi.
In desperate scenes earlier in the day, terrified passengers pleaded by mobile phone live on TV to be saved from the vessel which was travelling from the Greek port of Patras to Ancona in Italy.
"I cannot breathe, we are all going to burn like rats - God save us," cried one of the ship's cooks in a call to his wife, she told journalists.
Alongside rescue efforts by a flotilla of ships, including nearby merchant vessels, helicopters were winching passengers two by two from the bridge to an Italian ship.
As darkness fell, the Italian navy said that a tugboat, the Marietta Barretta, had finally been able to attach itself to the ferry, raising hopes it could be stabilised sufficiently to accelerate the evacuation of the 287 left on board.
Greek Marine Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis confirmed the towing operation but said he did not know the destination of the tugboat. Although Albania was "much closer", he said the final decision rested with the Italian rescuers who "know the situation better".
Italian navy spokesman Riccardo Rizzotto told Rainews that the stricken vessel was 40 nautical miles from Otranto in southern Italy and 13 nautical miles from Albania's coastline.
- 'Our shoes were melting' -
Rizzotto said the weather was "so bad we need an extraordinary level of support".
Freezing passengers huddled on the top deck and bridge 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," 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.
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.
The captain of the ferry was named as 62-year-old Italian Argilio Giacomazzi. "I can't wait to give him a hug," his daughter Giulia told ANSA news agency.
Vessels close to the ferry, leased to Greek operator ANEK Lines, rushed to give assistance after picking up its distress signal at 0200 GMT, the Greek coast guard said.
The Greek maritime ministry said 268 of the passengers were Greek, with the crew made up of 22 Italians and 34 Greeks. But the rest of the passengers were made up of 54 Turks, 44 Italians, 22 Albanians, 18 Germans as well as Swiss, French, Russian, Austrian, British and Dutch nationals.
Among those rescued and evacuated to hospitals near Lecce on Italy's south-eastern heel were a two-year-old Swiss boy, his four-year-old sister and their seven months pregnant mother, according to Italian media. Two children aged 11 and 12 were reported to have been evacuated while their respective parents were still on the boat.
The "Norman Atlantic" left Patras at 1530 GMT on Saturday and made a stop at Igoumenitsa, before heading to Ancona when the fire took hold.
The car deck of the Italian-flagged ferry was believed to have been holding 195 vehicles when the fire broke out. It remained unclear how the fire started.
Carlo Visentini, the chief executive of the Visenti Group which owns the boat, said the vessel underwent checks on December 19 in Patras and the minor flaws revealed had been addressed, including a problem with a fire door.