More than 200 freezing passengers and crew remained trapped on a burning ferry and adrift in rough seas between Italy and Albania early Monday after enduring a second night of smoke, frigid temperatures and gale-force winds awaiting evacuation after fire broke out. At least one person died and two were injured in the risky rescue operation.
The Italian navy said 251 of the 478 people on the ferry, sailing from the Greek port of Patras to Ancona in Italy, had been evacuated by early Monday. Most were airlifted by helicopter to other merchant vessels sailing nearby, though a few were flown to hospitals in southern Italy to be treated for hypothermia.
"Despite the smoke, the dark and the horrible conditions, rescue activities continued without stop throughout the night," Italian navy Capt. Riccardo Rizzotto said, adding that another large Italian navy ship with a helicopter landing pad was headed to the scene to help.
Greek Merchant Marine Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis said 10 merchant ships were in the area assisting rescue efforts, and that those which had already taken on dozens of passengers from the stricken ferry would remain in the area until the operation was over. Only then would it be determined where they would go, Varvitsiotis said.
Nevertheless, officials in the Adriatic port of Bari were preparing for the first large group to arrive Monday -- some 49 people. They were initially expected in Brindisi down the coast, but rough seas forced a change of plans, officials said.
The fire broke out before dawn Sunday on a car deck of the Italian-flagged Norman Atlantic, carrying 422 passengers and 56 crew members. Passengers huddled on the vessel's upper decks, pelted by rain and hail and struggling to breathe through the thick smoke, passengers told Greek media by phone.
"We are outside, we are very cold, the ship is full of smoke," passenger Giorgos Stiliaras told Greek Mega TV.
He recalled people being awakened by "the smell of burning plastic" and that the heat from the fire felt like the floors were "boiling."
Dotty Channing-Williams, mother of ferry passenger Nick Channing-Williams, said she had managed to speak to her son before he and his Greek fiancee were airlifted to safety. In an interview with The Associated Press from her home in Newbury, Britain, she said she had complained to her son that there was no information available for families.
"He said `Well, it's an awful lot worse for us because we're actually standing out here in the pouring rain, and thunder and lightning, and we really just don't know exactly what's going to happen."'
The president of the Brindisi Port Authority, Hercules Haralambides, said the passengers were still out on deck after midnight, but that blankets had been provided by rescue crews from the Brindisi-based St. George navy ship, which was leading the rescue. Medical personnel had also boarded to check on passengers and crew and none reported major injuries, the Greek coast guard said.
"We're all concerned for the health of the passengers," Haralambides said.
Rizzotto said the ultimate destination of the stricken ferry was unclear. Some Italian officials said it would likely be towed to an Italian port, even though it was currently closer to Albania. "The priority now is to rescue the crew and passengers as quickly as possible," he told Sky TG24.
The ferry was last inspected by the Patras Port Authority on Dec. 19 and six "deficiencies" were found, but none were so grave as to keep it in port, according to the report on the European Maritime Safety Agency's website.
The deficiencies involved a "malfunctioning" fire door as well as "missing" emergency lighting and batteries and defective "watertight doors."
The ship manufacturer, Carlo Visentini, was quoted by the ANSA news agency as saying that only one of the 160 fireproof doors was found to be problematic in the inspection and that it was located above the fire zone. Visentini said the problem was fixed immediately to the satisfaction of the inspectors.
Italy and Greece sent navy and coast guard vessels and helicopters to the extensive rescue operation, while nearby merchant ships lined up to form a barrier to protect the ferry from towering waves.
The Italian Coast Guard, which was coordinating the rescue operation, said the flames visible from the outside of the ship had been extinguished by about 8:30 pm (1930 GMT) Sunday, about 16 hours after the blaze began. But the ferry was still enveloped in dense smoke, which the Coast Guard probably said was being fueled by some hotspots inside the ship.
Varvitsiotis described the efforts as "one of the most complex search and rescue operations we have dealt with in recent years."
An Italian Air Force helicopter pilot said smoke had even invaded the helicopter cabin, making rescue even more challenging.
"With the wind, smoke entered into the helicopter cabin, acrid smoke," Maj. Antonio Laneve told Italian state TV. Some of those they were trying to rescue were very frightened of being hoisted up by helicopter given the adverse weather, he said.
Nine of those evacuated were taken to the Italian town of Lecce, authorities said. Of those, three children and a pregnant woman were treated for hypothermia in Lecce hospital. Dr. Raffaele Montinaro said the children were in "excellent" condition, and emergency room doctor, Antonio Palumbo, said the mother's condition was also good.
"For sure they are scared," said Eligio Rocco Catamo, manager of the Copertino hospital. "But I should say that I was impressed by the calm and the serenity they are showing."
A local convent was housing survivors who were released from the hospital.
The Italian Navy said the man who died and his injured wife were transported by helicopter to the southern Italian city of Brindisi. It was unclear how the death and injury occurred, but the Greek Coast Guard said the pair -- both Greek passengers -- were found in a lifeboat rescue chute.
The second injury was to a member of the Italian military involved in the rescue operation, Coast Guard Admiral Giovanni Pettorino said.
Pettorino told Italy's Sky TG24 TV that two Italian tugs tried to attach themselves to the ferry in the evening, but were frustrated by the thick smoke. Eventually the tugs managed to attach the line, ANSA reported.
Passengers described scenes of terror and chaos when the fire broke out as they slept in their cabins.
"They called first on women and children to be evacuated from the ship," Vassiliki Tavrizelou, who was rescued along with her 2-year-old daughter, told The Associated Press.
"Ships could not approach us because of the rain and winds," Tavrizelou said in a telephone interview from 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.
The ship, run by a Greek ferry company, was packed with holidaymakers and truck drivers making the popular transport run between Greece and Italy. Of those on board, 234 passengers and 34 crew are Greek, said Greek Merchant Marine spokesman Nikos Lagadianos.
Other passengers are from several other countries, including Turkey, Albania, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and France. The crew is Greek and Italian.
Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was in contact with his Italian counterpart, Matteo Renzi, to coordinate the operation.