An Italian-owned ferry has caught fire off the coast of Greece with 466 passengers and crew aboard, reports Al-Jazeera. Greek officials have stated that a rescue operation is under way to save travellers on the stricken ship, the Norman Atlantic, Al-Jazeera journalists have stated in the report made available online at 10:00 this morning.
The ferry, which is believed to be carrying 222 vehicles, 411 passengers and 55 crew, was 44 nautical miles northwest of the popular holiday destination island of Corfu when it sent a distress signal after a fire was seen burning in the lower deck, Greek coastguard officials said.
Several local vessels immediately rushed to the Norman Atlantic‘s aid and successfully removed 205 people from the deck so far. Fifty-five were taken in by one ship, while the other 150 people rescued so far were said to have escaped the vessel using its lifeboats and are waiting to be picked up by ships attending the SOS call.
The Greek rescue operation is being hampered by heavy winds and choppy sea conditions in the Mediterranean, making it difficult for ships to approach the Norman Atlantic safely. The vessel itself is being lashed by strong winds which rescuer fear may potentially cause the fire to spread rapidly to other parts of the ferry. Seven vessels have however managed to side up to the ship to rescue remaining passengers, while Al-Jazeera also reports that both Italian and Greek aircraft were seen flying above the Norman Atlantic, and two Greek firefighting ships have been sent to tackle the flames.
According to the Agence France Presse (AFP) news agency, the fire is believed to have started in a parking bay, which has a stated maximum capacity of 200 vehicles. The Greek television station Mega further reports that the ferry is also transporting an undisclosed volume of olive oil, which rescuers are concerned may pose an explosion risk if the fire reaches the ship’s cargo hold. Greece’s defence minister Nikos Dendias told Mega that Italian rescue services and military personnel responded to a call for help from Greek maritime authorities after the fire occurred shortly after the ferry left the port of Patras en route to the Italian town of Ancona at 5.30 am local time this morning. A passenger who fled the burning ship reported that heat from the blaze had caused the soles of their shoes to melt as they were waiting for assistance in the ferry’s reception area. There are currently no reports of any casualties.
According to the ship tracking website VesselFinder, the Norman Atlantic is currently off the coast of Albania near the town of Fier and had travelled between Ancona in Italy and Patras and Igoumenitsa, both on the Greek mainland. The ship is described by VesselFinder as a dual-purpose passenger and ro-ro cargo ship which is registered under the flag of Italy. She was built in 2009 and is capable of carrying up to 26,904 tonnes. The ferry is operated by the Saremar ferry company based in Cagliari, Sardinia. The company has not yet made any formal comment on the situation on board the ferry.