A ferry carrying nearly 500 people caught fire off the Greek island of Corfu early Sunday, trapping passengers on the top decks as gale-force winds and choppy seas hampered the evacuation.
Greek and Italian Navy ships were heading to the area to help in the coordinated rescue effort. The fire broke out on the car deck of the Italian-flagged Norman Atlantic, traveling from the Greek port of Patras to Ancona, Italy with 423 passengers and 55 crew members on board.
No one has been reported injured, and the ship was not in immediate danger of sinking, authorities said.
Passengers, stranded on a high deck for more than six hours, told Greek media that lifeboats from surrounding vessles had been unable to take them off due to the high seas.
"The fire is still burning,» Greek passenger Sofoklis Styliaras told private Mega television. «On the lower deck, where the lifeboats are, our shoes were starting to melt from the heat. ... There's nowhere else for us to go. It's impossible to walk on the lower deck because of the heat."
Merchant Marine Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis said a life boat carrying about 150 passengers had been lowered into the water, but that only 35 had been moved to a nearby cargo ship so far because of the turbulent weather.
"This is a very difficult, a very complex rescue operation,» he said. «The visibility is poor and the weather conditions are difficult."
Prime Minister Antonis Samaras was in contact with his Italian counterpart, Matteo Renzi, to coordinate the operation «at the highest level,» Greek government officials said.
Varvitsiotis said the coastguard was in constant contact with Italian authorities and the Greek armed forces.
"We are committed to rescuing everyone on the ship, and are trying to ensure that nobody will be left unaided,» he said.
Greek authorities said they had sent five helicopters and a military transport plane to the area to assist in the operation, with the ship reported to be 42 nautical miles (48 miles, 78 kilometers) northwest of Corfu.
Italian Coast Guard spokesman Marco Di Milla said the rescue operations would likely last for hours. He said it would be up to the Greeks, in command of rescue operations, to decide where the rescued passengers and crew would be taken.
An Italian Coast Guard boat was at the scene, as well one helicopter each from the Italian Navy and Air Force.
At least seven merchant ships were next to the Norman Atlantic as part of the rescue effort, and being used to form a barrier against the high winds of up to 75 kilometers per hour (46 miles per hour).