CORFU, Greece (AP) — Rescue specialists boarded a burning ferry in Greece to free two truck drivers who had been stranded inside the vessel for more than 15 hours Friday, but hope was fading for 11 others were reported missing.
The rescuers descended from a helicopter onto the ship through thick clouds of smoke to eventually locate the two men inside the Euroferry Olympia ferry who had spent hours on a parking deck waiting for help.
The coast guard said 278 passengers and crew had been 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 told the Associated Press 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 hospitalized. 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.
Friday's predawn fire broke out in the Ionian Sea on the Italy-flagged vessel three hours after it left the port of Igoumenitsa in northwest Greece for the Italian port of Brindisi. Greek authorities said 239 passengers and 51 crew members on board, adding that the vessel was transporting more than 153 trucks and 32 cars.
As night fell, the ship was surrounded by firefighting vessels, including a small car ferry used as a floating platform for fire trucks to assist in the effort
The 183-meter (600-foot) Euroferry Olympia, built in 1995, is operated by the Grimaldi Group, based in Naples, Italy. It was traveling near the small Greek island of Ereikousa, 15 kilometers north of Corfu, when the fire started.
Most of the passengers were rescued by an Italian customs inspection boat that was passing the ferry when the fire broke out. It was later joined by six boats from Greece’s coast guard and four helicopters, as well as a coast guard vessel from nearby Albania, several firefighting vessels and privately-chartered boats.
“We took the captain aboard, and the first question we asked was if all the persons had gone into lifeboats,’’ Lodovico Cicchetti, the captain of the Italian customs boat, told Italy’s state TV RaiNews24 in an interview from his vessel. “He answered in the affirmative.” Cicchetti said in addition to those evacuated in the lifeboats one person had jumped into the sea from the ferry and the other escaped by climbing down the ferry’s ladder.
Romania’s foreign ministry said 29 Romanian citizens were among those rescued. One of them, Bogdan Topan, told local news channel Digi24 that he was asleep when the blaze broke out and had to scramble to safety.
“There was a lot of smoke,” he said. “They gave us life jackets, and they separated everybody so the women and children were first, and they put us into the lifeboats — it happened very fast.”
Gatopoulos reported from Athens, Greece and D’Emilio from Rome. Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Stephen McGrath in Bucharest, Romania, and Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy contributed to this report.
Costas Kantouris, Derek Gatopoulos And Frances D'emilio, The Associated Press