ATHENS (Reuters, AFP) - Hundreds of passengers were trapped on a burning car ferry off Greece on Sunday, pleading to be rescued by a flotilla of nearby ships that battled storm conditions in open water to try to reach them.
The Greek coastguard said 150 people had been saved from the Italian-registered Norman Atlantic, which was carrying almost 500 passengers and crew when it sent a distress signal after fire broke out on its lower deck. As high winds and rough seas impeded efforts by other ships to rescue those still on board, it was unclear whether there had been casualties or if any passengers were in the water.
"The ship is still on fire, the floor is burning," passenger George Styliaras told Greek TV by telephone, adding that smoke was making it difficult to breathe. "We don't know how long we can hold on."
The Norman Atlantic, carrying 222 vehicles and 478 people, was 44 nautical miles northwest of the island of Corfu when it sent a distress signal after a fire started in the lower deck, Greek coast guard officials said.
Shipping Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis said the combination of very bad weather, with winds of up to 88 kilometres per hour and the fire, made the operation extremely complicated. "We are doing everything we can to save those on board and no one, no one will be left helpless in this tough situation," he told reporters. "It is one of the most complicated rescue operations that we have ever done."
Varvitsiotis said there were 478 passengers and crew aboard the ship, more than the 466 originally reported. Of those, 268 were Greek. There were no immediate details of the nationality of other passengers.
Passengers who telephoned Greek television stations gave dramatic testimony of conditions on the ship which caught fire just before 6am local time (12pm Singapore time) while travelling from Patras in western Greece to the eastern Italian city of Ancona.
"We are burning and sinking, no one can save us," Nikos Papatheodosiou told Greek TV by telephone. "Please help us! Don't leave us," he said before hanging up.
"They tried to lower some boats, but not all of us could get in. There is no coordination," another 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."
The fire was said to have broken out in the ferry's parking bay, which can hold some 200 vehicles. Greek television network Mega said there were tankers holding olive oil in the bay. "Our shoes were melting while we were in the reception area," one passenger told Mega. Passengers said they were waiting on the upper deck of the ship for help to come.
Greek Defence Minister Nikos Dendias told the channel that Italian authorities had responded to a Greek plea for assistance and had now taken charge of the rescue operation.
Officials said both Italian and Albanian authorities were taking part in the operation, which was being conducted in difficult conditions with strong winds. Seven other ships were in the area and rescue helicopters and a C-130 search-and-rescue support aircraft had also been sent.