Greek ferry fire: One dead, hundreds trapped
HUNDREDS of people remain trapped on board a burning passenger ferry off the Greek island of Corfu, with rescuers frantically struggling to reach the vessel amid gale force winds and lashing rain.
Two Britons were among the 422 passengers and 56 crew members on board the Norman Atlantic, travelling from Patras in Greece to Ancona in Italy.
A fire broke out on the car deck shortly after the ferry left the port of Igoumenitsa on Sunday morning, spreading rapidly through the ship.
At least one person was killed trying to escape from the blazing ship, with another seriously injured, the Italian Coast Guard said. Greek authorities said 161 people had so far been transported to safety, but rescue efforts were being hampered by 55mph winds.
Nick Channing-Williams, 37, is understood to be one of the Britons on board. His mother Dotty said he was taking a trip with his 33-year-old Greek fiancee Regina Theoffili. She said she had spoken to him over the phone after the fire broke out, but had since lost contact.
"People in Greece are saying that their communications have been cut off, so as not to hamper rescue operations which I can fully understand," she told Sky News.
"It is very, very worrying and very scary." When she spoke to her son he had been awaiting rescue on the ferry's top deck for seven hours "in the rain and thunder and lightning", she added.
Mrs Channing-Williams said her son, a competitive show jumper, had initially delayed calling her because he did not want her to worry.
"He said, 'I'm afraid I don't have a car any more, and I don't have your iPad any more.' I said don't worry about that, are you going to be able to get off that ferry? And he said 'Mum, I don't know'."
Passengers were being plucked off the deck of the ferry in pairs by helicopter, before being transferred to a waiting ship. A Greek Defence Ministry official said two Italian and two Greek Super Puma helicopters had been deployed, with each air transfer taking around 15 minutes.
John Kittmer, the British Ambassador to Greece, confirmed that two Britons were on board. "We are in close contact with the Greek authorities and are urgently seeking more information," he wrote on Twitter. "We understand that the Greek authorities are working with the Italians, who are leading the rescue effort."
Passengers still awaiting rescue described harrowing scenes as the burning ship continued to be rocked by heavy storms. "The ship is still burning. The floors are scorching hot. We are choking from the fumes... we are drenched and shaking," passenger Giorgos Styliaras told a local television station.
Five military helicopters, two planes and eight ships were dispatched to help with the effort, but passengers feared the terrible weather would foil their rescue. "We're burning and we're sinking. No one can save us," said Nikos Papatheodossiou. "They can't reach our ship and fire is expanding: help, help, we're asking for help."
Another passenger told Greek television station Mega: "On the lower deck, where the lifeboats are, our shoes were starting to melt from the heat."
Officials said the ferry was 44 nautical miles northwest of the island of Corfu when it issued a distress call. Hours later, the Italian captain said the ship was drifting towards the Albanian coast and that the crew had managed to contain the blaze.