A ferry carrying nearly 500 people caught fire off the Greek island of Corfu early today, trapping passengers on the top decks as gale-force winds and choppy seas hampered the evacuation. Greek and Italian Navy ships were heading to the area in a rescue effort. 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 423 passengers and 55 crew members. No one has been reported injured, and the ship was not in immediate danger of sinking. Passengers, stranded on a high deck for more than six hours, told Greek media that lifeboats had been unable to take them off due to the high seas. "The fire is still burning," said one. "On the lower deck, where the lifeboats are, our shoes were starting to melt from the heat. ... It's impossible to walk on the lower deck because of the heat."
Merchant Marine Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis said a life boat carrying about 150 passengers had been lowered into the water, but that only 35 had been moved to a nearby cargo ship so far because of the turbulent weather. "This is a very difficult, a very complex rescue operation," he said. "The visibility is poor and the weather conditions are difficult." 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. "We are committed to rescuing everyone on the ship, and are trying to ensure that nobody will be left unaided," Varvitsiotis said. Italian Coast Guard spokesman Marco Di Milla said the rescue operations would likely last hours. At least seven merchant ships were next to the Norman Atlantic as part of the rescue, and being used to form a barrier against the high winds of up to 46mph.