One person has died and another has been injured as emergency services battled against abysmal weather to rescue people from a burning ferry near a Greek island. Eighteen Germans are among the stranded passengers.
Italian Coast Guard official Giovanni Pettorino told Italy's Sky TG24 TV that a passenger died on Sunday while attempting to escape from the ferry which is currently stranded in the Adriatic Sea.
He added that the victim and an injured person were transported by Italian rescuers to the country's mainland.
Hundreds of people remained trapped on the ferry on Sunday evening as weather conditions continued to deteriorate and further hamper rescue efforts.
Complicated rescue operation
A fire broke out in the lower deck garage of the Italian-flagged ANEK Lines ferry in the early hours of Sunday when it was about 44 nautical miles off the coast of Corfu, after leaving the Greek port of Patras en route to Ancona in Italy.
Rescue vessels, firefighting vessels and helicopters from Greece and Italy were sent to the scene as part of a rescue operation coordinated by Italy.
Merchant ships in the vicinity of the Norman Atlantic also gathered to form a ring surrounding the ferry in an attempt to buffer it from raging winds, after gusts of up to 100 kilometers (60 miles) an hour pushed the ferry toward the Albanian coast.
"We are doing everything we can to save those on board and no one, no one will be left helpless in this tough situation," Greek Shipping Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis said, adding, "It is one of the most complicated rescue operations that we have ever done."
Some 140 people had been rescued by nightfall on Sunday; however, several hundreds remained stranded on smoke-filled top decks.
Freezing passengers who huddled on the ship's top deck used their mobile phones to tell Greek television stations of their horror as high winds, rain and violent seas lashed the burning ferry.
"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," one of the passengers, Giorgos Styliaras, told Mega TV.
Another passenger told Mega of the heat that was so intense that shoes had started to melt. "We will burn like mice," witness Nikos told Greek radio station Skai.
It remained unclear, however, whether any of the passengers or crew had entered the water surrounding the ferry. If anyone were in the water, the cold winter temperatures would make survival difficult unless they were rescued quickly.
In total, there were 478 passengers and crew aboard the ship, around 234 of whom were said to be Greek.
ksb/es (AFP, AFP, dpa)