A fire erupted on a ferry carrying 478 people from Greece to Italy today, leaving one person dead and trapping hundreds on top decks as gale-force winds and choppy seas hampered evacuation. The Italian Navy said that the victim and an injured person were transported by helicopter to the southern Italian city of Brindisi. Greek and Italian rescue helicopters and vessels struggled to reach the crippled ferry, battered by 55mph winds that pushed it toward the Albanian coast. Nearby merchant ships lined up to form a barrier to protect the ferry from towering waves and facilitate rescue. As darkness fell, Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti said rescue operations would continue throughout the night. As CNN reports, rescuers have managed to pull 161 people from the boat, but another 317 remain aboard.
The fire broke out on the car deck of the Italian-flagged Norman Atlantic, about 48 miles northwest of the Greek island of Corfu, with 422 passengers and 56 crew members on board. Some 11 hours after pre-dawn blaze erupted as passengers slept, the boat was still burning. Heavy gray smoke enveloped the top decks as dusk approached, while tugboats sprayed water in a battle to extinguish the flames. Passengers described scenes of chaos and explosions. "We are outside, we are very cold, the ship is full of smoke," said one by telephone. "The boat is still burning, the floors are boiling." A Greek Merchant Marine rep said a lifeboat carrying about 150 passengers had been lowered into the water, and hours later some of them were apparently still in the lifeboat. Italian rescue workers started transporting passengers from the lifeboat by helicopter—two at a time—to the nearby Cruise Europa ship. "We are committed to rescuing everyone on the ship, and are trying to ensure that nobody will be left unaided," said Merchant Marine Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis. (Read more ferry stories.)