ATHENS, Greece (AP) — A fire erupted on a ferry carrying 478 people from Greece to Italy on Sunday, 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 on Sunday evening. Greek and Italian rescue helicopters and vessels struggled to reach the crippled ferry, battered by 90 kilometer per hour (55 mph) 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.
The fire broke out on the car deck of the Italian-flagged Norman Atlantic, traveling from the western Greek port of Patras to the Italian port of Ancona on the Adriatic, with 422 passengers and 56 crew members on board. The ship was stricken about 42 nautical miles (48 miles, 78 kilometers) northwest of the Greek island of Corfu.
Some 11 hours after pre-dawn blaze erupted as passengers slept, only 149 people had been rescued from the ferry, and the blaze was still burning, the Greek Merchant Marine Ministry said. Heavy gray smoke enveloped the top decks as dusk approached, while tugboats sprayed water in a battle to extinguish the flames.
Nine of the rescued were flown to the southern Italian city of Lecce and the rest taken to nearby ships, said Greek Merchant Marine spokesman Nikos Lagadianos.
Passengers described scenes of terror and chaos. ‘‘They called first on women and children to be evacuated from the ship,’’ Vassiliki Tavrizelou, who was rescued along with her 2-year-old daughter, told The Associated Press.
‘‘Ships could not approach us because of the rain and winds,’’ Tavrizelou said in a telephone interview from a hospital in Lecce. ‘‘We were at least four hours on the deck, in the cold and rain.’’
She recalled the ship alarm going off and seeing fire from her cabin. ‘‘Then we heard explosions,’’ she said. It was not immediately clear what the explosions were, and the cause of the fire has yet to be determined.
Passenger Giorgos Stiliaras told Greek Mega TV that passengers were having trouble breathing with all the smoke. ‘‘We are outside, we are very cold, the ship is full of smoke,’’ he said by telephone. ‘‘The boat is still burning, the floors are boiling.’’ He recalled ‘‘the smell of burning plastic’’ waking people up.
The ship, which was run by a Greek ferry company, 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 are Greek, said Lagadianos. Other passengers are from Turkey, Albania, Italy and several other countries, including Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and France. Many of the crew included Italians.
Lagadianos 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.
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was in contact with his Italian counterpart, Matteo Renzi, to coordinate the operation.
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.
Italian Coast Guard and naval vessels were involved in the rescue operation, as were helicopters 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.
D’Emilio reported from Rome; Costas Kantouris, Derek Gatopoulos and Nicholas Paphitis contributed.