A ferry carrying about 470 people caught fire off the Greek island of Corfu early Sunday, trapping passengers on the top decks as gale-force winds and choppy seas hampered the evacuation.
Greek and Italian rescue helicopters and vessels struggled to reach the stricken ferry, battered by 90 kilometer per hour (55 mph) winds that sent it up toward the strait between Italy and Albania. Nearby, merchant ships lined up to form a barrier to protect the ferry and facilitate rescue, said Italian Navy Capt. Riccardo Rizzotto.
The fire broke out on the car deck of the Italian-flagged Norman Atlantic, traveling from the Greek port of Patras to Ancona, Italy, with 422 passengers and 56 crew members on board. No one has been reported injured, and 117 people have been transported to safety — eight airlifted to southern Italy and the rest taken to nearby ships, said Greek Merchant Marine spokesman Nikos Lagadianos.
Passengers stranded on a high deck told Greek media that lifeboats from surrounding vessels had been unable to take them off due to the high seas.
"The fire is still burning," Greek passenger Sofoklis Styliaras told private Mega television. "On the lower deck, where the lifeboats are, our shoes were starting to melt from the heat. ... There's nowhere else for us to go. It's impossible to walk on the lower deck because of the heat."
The ship was packed with holidaymakers and truck drivers making the popular transport run between Greece and Italy. Of those on board, 234 passengers and 34 crew were Greek and the rest of various unspecified nationalities, said Lagadianos.
The spokesman said a lifeboat carrying about 150 passengers had been lowered into the water, and Italian rescue workers started transporting passengers from it by helicopter — two at a time — to the nearby Cruise Europa ship. Two tugboats were working to try to extinguish the fire, he said.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was in contact with his Italian counterpart, Matteo Renzi, to coordinate the operation "at the highest level," Greek government officials said, adding that the operation was now under Italian control.
Merchant Marine Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis said the Coast Guard was in constant contact with Italian authorities and the Greek armed forces. "We are committed to rescuing everyone on the ship, and are trying to ensure that nobody will be left unaided," he said.
Greek authorities said they had sent five helicopters and a military transport plane to the area to assist in the operation, with the ship reported to be 42 nautical miles (48 miles, 78 kilometers) northwest of Corfu.
Italian Coast Guard spokesman Marco Di Milla said the rescue operations would likely last for hours. An Italian Coast Guard boat was at the scene, as well one helicopter each from the Italian Navy and Air Force.
Lagadianos said two Greek Coast Guard tugboats and two firefighting vessels were also heading toward the ship. A Greek frigate was being sent to the area, as well as Italian Navy ships that are much closer. Flying overhead were a C-130 military transport plane, five helicopters and a Super Puma helicopter, the spokesman said.
At one point, high winds forced helicopters to be grounded, authorities said.