11 missing after fire ravages ferry off Greece

Coast guard says 278 passengers and crew were rescued from a major fire that engulfed the Italy-bound ferry with 291 people on board.

A ferry is on fire at the Ionian Sea near the island of Corfu, Greece,
The ferry is seen on fire in the Ionian Sea near the island of Corfu, Greece, on Friday [Lazos Mantikos/debater.gr. via AP]

Rescuers boarded a burning ferry off of Greece and freed two truck drivers stranded inside the vessel for more than 15 hours, but hope faded for 11 others reported missing.

The team descended from a helicopter onto the ship on Friday through thick clouds of smoke to eventually locate the two men inside the Euroferry Olympia ferry who spent hours on a parking deck desperately waiting for help.

The coast guard said 278 passengers and crew were rescued earlier in the day from a fire that engulfed the Italy-bound ferry with 291 people on board near the Greek island of Corfu.

The cause of the blaze was unclear. The Italy-based ferry company said it started in a hold where vehicles were parked, while officials confirmed that nationals from Albania, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Italy, and Lithuania were among the rescued.

“I thought death had come from me,” Albanian truck driver Zef Lufi said after his rescue. “There was so much smoke. I thought we wouldn’t make it. It took us about an hour and a half before we got into the lifeboats and about three more hours before we were picked up.”

The rescued passengers, many wrapped in foil blankets, were all transported to Corfu where 10 people were hospitalised. None were in serious condition and most had breathing difficulties.

It was the worst maritime incident in Greece since the 2014 fire in the Adriatic sea on the Greek-chartered passenger ferry Norman Atlantic killed at least 10 people.

‘May Day’

The Italian-flagged Euroferry Olympia had sailed from Igoumenitsa, the largest port in western Greece, and was headed to the Italian port of Brindisi, about nine hours away.

“The captain of the Euroferry Olympia asked the passengers to leave the boat,” police said, adding that tugboats and patrol boats had been sent to help the rescue operation.

A video uploaded on Greek news website Proto Thema showed a ferry engulfed in flames and huge plumes of smoke. “May Day” was blasting from speakers.

“The passengers were transferred safe and sound onto rescue boats to Corfu,” Rodi Kratsa, the governor of the Ionian Islands region, told ERT television.

A Greek coastguard spokeswoman said it would take hours to extinguish the fire.

Stowaway fears

There are fears there could be unknown passengers on the ship, such as migrant stowaways who frequently sneak onto ferries between Greece and Italy.

“We heard that the fire started in the hold, but it’s not certain,” one man who identified himself as a passenger told Skai TV.

“It took just 15 minutes for the fire to reach the deck,” he said, adding that the mostly Italian crew’s response had been “simply perfect”.

“They were very organised. The crew saved us,” he said.

Television images showed the ship, owned by Italy’s Grimaldi Lines, enveloped in flames that sent plumes of black smoke into the sky.

An Italian patrol boat also assisted, and some rescued passengers later told Italian news agency Ansa the flames were “gigantic” and panic had ensued.

“The evacuation was not a simple matter,” the patrol boat’s commander told Ansa.

Nikos Bardis, a local fisherman, earlier told ERT several fishing boats were also circling the stricken vessel, looking for people in the water.

“We can hear explosions, it must be freight trucks blowing up,” he said.

There is heavy maritime traffic between the western Greek ports of Igoumenitsa and Patras and the Italian ports of Brindisi and Ancona.

Map Greece-Corfu-Igoumenitsa

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies