Ferry catches fire off Greek coast, hundreds aboard
VERBANIA (AP):Italian, Greek and Albanian vessels battled gale-force winds and rough seas yesterday as they tried to rescue hundreds of passengers stranded on a ferry that caught fire off the northwestern coast of Greece en route to Italy.
Hours after the fire began, Italian rescue operators had managed to get 111 of the nearly 500 passengers and crew members off the ferry, but yesterday afternoon a spokesman for the Italian Defense Ministry said it was unclear how many people remained on the ship.
Throughout the day, ships and helicopters departed from several Italian ports to reach the stricken boat. The ferry, the Norman Atlantic, sails under an Italian flag, but was chartered by a Greek company, ANEK Lines. It caught fire about 35 miles north of the Greek island of Corfu after leaving the Greek port of Igoumenitsa early Sunday morning, the charter company said in a statement. It did not say what caused the fire.
Fire on car deck
Italian news media reported that the fire broke out in the car deck of the ferry, which was heading to the Italian port of Ancona.
Italian news media broadcast images of the ship enveloped in smoke. Earlier yesterday Greece's merchant marine minister, Miltiades Varvitsiotis, described the rescue operations as "particularly difficult and complicated".
There were no reports of injuries or missing persons, said the Defense Ministry spokesman, who asked not to be identified according to Italian institutional practices, but concerns for the safety of passengers remained high because of the difficulties the rescue operations were encountering.
Attempts to attach a tow rope to the ferry to drag it to a port were hampered by the heat produced by the fire, he said.
Passengers found refuge on the top deck of the ship, according to the Italian Navy, which is coordinating the rescue operations.
"We're trying to work as fast as we can because the daylight hours are dwindling," the Defense Ministry spokesman said. Yestarday afternoon, the ferry was about 33 nautical miles from the Italian town of Otranto in the Puglia region, and 12 nautical miles from the Albanian coast.
A Greek woman, who gave her name only as Athina, told a Greek television station that she and about 40 other passengers could feel the heat from the fire on the deck before boarding a lifeboat. "The deck was hot, it was burning our feet," she said. "We couldn't believe what was happening."