High Winds

One body recovered as hundreds still trapped aboard burning ferry

Rescuers have so far only managed to get 161 of the 478 people on the stricken “Norman Atlantic” to safety.

Updated at 5.33pm

Prothema Prothema

DESPERATE PASSENGERS PLEADED by mobile phone live on TV to be saved from a burning ferry adrift off Albania today as rescuers battled gale-force winds and billowing smoke to get to them.

“I cannot breath, we are all going to burn like rats — God save us,” cried one of the ship’s cooks in a call to his wife, she told journalists.

But with gusts of up to 100 kilometres per hour making any approach difficult and dangerous, rescuers have so far only managed to get 161 of the 478 people on the stricken “Norman Atlantic” to safety.

Shortly before 5pm, Italy’s coastguard said it had recovered the body of a man from water around the vessel, confirming the first casualty of the high-seas disaster.

The coastguard said the man’s body was taken aboard a patrol boat and was being taken to the Italian port of Brindisi. It was not clear exactly how the victim ended up in the water.

Greek officials said a woman who had been in the same part of the boat as the deceased man had been rescued. The name and nationality of the victim were not released.

The navy also said that a tugboat, the Marietta Barretta, had finally been able to attach itself to the burning ferry, raising hopes it could be stabilised sufficiently to accelerate the evacuation of those left on board.

Darkness falls

With night closing in, and the ship drifting towards Albania, tugs hosed its charred stern and midship with sea water.

The blaze was said to have broken out in the ferry’s car deck.

Despite a relative lull in the storm mid-afternoon, seas were still so violent that the task of plucking passengers from lifeboats and the ship itself was going painfully slowly, the Greek marine ministry confirmed.

As a flotilla of rescue vessels arrived from Greece, Italy and Albania, Greek army Super Puma helicopters winched passengers two by two from the bridge to the Italian ship, Europa, which is coordinating the rescue.

A Greek journalist on board the ship said rescuers were also trying to attach rope ladders to the ferry so passengers could climb down onto tug boats.

A Greek army helicopter had earlier made repeated attempts to save two passengers who fell from an escape chute and were at the mercy of six-metre waves. Their fate was unknown.

Seven merchant vessels had encircled the ferry in an attempt to shelter it from fierce Force 10 winds, officials said, as four Greek and Italian firefighting vessels began arriving from either side of the Adriatic.

Greek Marine Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis said an attempt would be made to tow the vessel, with a passenger on board confirming the bid to Greek TV.

Greece Ferry Fire Greece's Coast Guard spokesman Nikolaos Lagadianos. AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

euronews (in English) / YouTube

‘Our shoes were melting’

Italian navy spokesman Riccardo said the weather is “so bad we need an extraordinary level of support, which is effectively what is being put in place.”

Authorities would not say if there had been any deaths, but Rizzotto said one 58-year-old man has been airlifted to Italy suffering from hypothermia.

Freezing passengers huddled on the top deck and bridge of the ship told of their terror in calls to Greek television stations.

“We are on the top deck, we are soaked, we are cold and we are coughing from the smoke. There are women, children and old people,” passenger Giorgos Styliaras told Mega TV.

Another told the station that “our shoes were melting” from the heat of the fire when they were mustered in the ship’s reception area.

Haulage company boss Giannis Mylonas, who was in contact with three of his drivers on the vessel, said there were between 20 and 25 tanker trucks filled with olive oil on board.

Screengrab - Euronews Screengrab - Euronews

Flames subsiding

They are taking too long to find a way to help them. Let’s hope this ferry will stand the heat of the fire,” he told the station.

Vessels close to the ANEK Lines ferry, which caught fire 44 nautical miles northwest of the Greek island of Corfu, rushed to give assistance after picking up its distress signal at 0200 GMT, the Greek coast guard said.

The Greek maritime ministry said 268 of the passengers were Greek, with the crew made up of 22 Italians and 34 Greeks. But rest of the passengers were made up of 54 Turks, 44 Italians, 22 Albanians, 18 Germans, 10 Swiss, nine French, and Russian, Austrian, British and Dutch nationals.

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs said there were no reports of any Irish citizens aboard the ferry. The Department is monitoring developments via its embassy in Athens.

The “Norman Atlantic” had left the Greek port of Patras at 3.30pm Irish time on Saturday and made a stop at Igoumenitsa, before heading to the Italian port of Ancona when the fire took hold.

The car deck of the Italian-flagged ferry was believed to have been holding 195 vehicles when the fire broke out.

According to rescued passengers, the intense heat rapidly affected the rest of the ship. However, passengers stranded on the ship later seemed to be more worried by the storm, telling Greek TV the flames were subsiding.

The ship’s Greek operators ANEK Lines said “members of the crew were working with Italian and Greek authorities to evacuate the ferry”, but did not say how the fire started.

© – AFP 2014 with reporting by Daragh Brophy.

Read: Captain of Korean ferry that killed over 300 escapes death penalty but sentenced to 36 years in prison >

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