TWO BRITONS were among 478 people on a ferry which caught fire off Corfu, leaving one person dead and trapping hundreds more.
The Italian-flagged Norman Atlantic was carrying 422 passengers and 56 crew members from Greece to Italy when the fire erupted causing chaos as passengers fled to the top deck to be rescued.
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The Italian Navy said the victim and an injured person were transported by helicopter to the southern Italian city of Brindisi last night.
Greek and Italian rescue helicopters and vessels struggled to reach the crippled ferry, to the north-west of Corfu. It was battered by 55mph winds that pushed it toward the Albanian coast.
As the rescue operation continued frightened passengers used mobile phones to telephone relatives and the media.
British woman Dotty Channing-Williams said her son Nicholas was aboard with his fiancée Regina, and she had spoken to him by telephone since the fire broke out, but then 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 said, while desperately waiting for news.
“They’re keeping me updated via the news coming over the Greek television. But nevertheless it is very, very worrying and very scary.”
When she spoke to her son he had been standing on the ferry’s top deck for seven hours “in the rain and thunder and lightning”.
Nearby ships lined up to form a barrier to protect the ferry from towering waves and help with the rescue efforts.
As darkness fell, Italian defence minister Roberta Pinotti said rescue operations would continue throughout the night.
Greece’s maritime minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis said the coastguard was working with Italian authorities and the Greek armed forces.
He said: “We are committed to rescuing everyone on the ship, and are trying to ensure nobody will be left unaided.”
The fire broke out on the car deck as the ferry was travelling from the western Greek port of Patras to the Italian port of Ancona on the Adriatic.
Some 11 hours after the blaze took hold as passengers slept, 149 people had been rescued, and the fire was still burning, Mr Varvitsiotis said. Smoke enveloped the top decks, while tugboats sprayed water in a bid to extinguish the flames.
Nine of the rescued passengers were flown to the southern Italian city of Lecce and the rest were taken to nearby ships, said Greek maritime ministry spokesman Nikos Lagadianos .
Passengers described scenes of terror. “They called first on women and children to be evacuated,” said Vassiliki Tavrizelou, who was rescued with her two-year-old daughter.
“Ships could not approach us because of the rain and winds,” Ms Tavrizelou said 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 television that passengers were having trouble breathing because of 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 trip between Greece and Italy. Of those on board, 234 passengers and 34 crew are Greek, said a maritime ministry spokesman.
Other passengers are from Turkey, Albania, Italy and several other countries, including Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and France. Many of the crew included Italians.
The spokesman added that 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.
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