Fire in ferry with 478 onboard, bad weather hits rescue operations

Athens, Dec 28 (IANS) A ferry with 478 people on board caught fire while sailing from Greece to Italy Sunday. Though more than 100 people were evacuated, adverse weather hampered rescue operations in the vessel off the Greek island of Corfu, officials said.

The ferry Norman Atlantic had sent a distress signal while sailing in international waters in the Adriatic Sea, when the crew realised that they could not put out the fire that started in one of the ship’s garages, the Greek Coast Guard said, according to a Xinhua report.
The ferry was sailing from the port of Patras in Greece to Ancona in Italy. The fire broke out in the hold, which was carrying 222 vehicles.
Officials had earlier said 466 people, including 411 passengers and 55 crew members, were onboard.
However, a representative of the Igoumenitsa Port Authority told Greek national broadcaster NERIT that 478 people, including 422 passengers and 56 crew members, were onboard the ferry.
Nearly 50 women and children have already been safely transferred to the Spirit of Piraeus vessel, Greek Shipping Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis said.
Another 60 passengers have been transferred to rescue boats as the evacuation operation launched by Greek, Italian and Albanian authorities was under way with about a dozen speedboats, a cruise ship, a tug vessel and container vessels surrounding the ferry.
Greek Defence Minister Nikos Dendias said Italy was leading the rescue operation, and a Greek Navy frigate, an Air Force jet and five helicopters were despatched to the area.
The Greek Fire Brigade also sent forces to assist in extinguishing the fire, but the operation was hampered by high winds of up to 100 km per hour and torrential rain, authorities said.
Greek shipping ministry sources said there were also communication problems as the Italian captain and crew could not speak English well.
The Norman Atlantic was chartered by Greek managing company ANEK Lines from the Italian firm Grimaldi Holding.
A passenger, Rania Fyreou, said in a telephonic conversation with Greek television channel Mega that people panicked when the alarm went off.
“We were sleeping and woken up by the alarm and the smoke. We put on warm clothes and rushed outside on the deck,” she said.
Some passengers jumped into the water and were retrieved by rescue boats, according to local television station SKAI.
“They were terrified of the blaze,” Greek passenger Esftathios said.
Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and his Italian counterpart Matteo Renzi were in constant contact with officials taking part in the operation, said Greek government spokesperson Sophia Voultepsi.
So far, no injuries or people missing have been reported, nor has information about the nationalities of the people onboard been released.