A rescue operation is under way in high winds in Greek waters for an Italian ferry carrying 466 people that has caught fire, Greek officials said early Sunday.
Vessels close to the stricken "Norman Atlantic", located 33 nautical miles off the small Greek island of Othonoi, rushed to give assistance after picking up its distress signal, the Greek coast guard said.
Around 55 passengers have been transferred to one ship, while 150 others were in a lifeboat. Seven vessels were next to the ferry to take passengers on board. Two Greek firefighting ships were on their way, while Italian and Greek aircraft circled overhead. The fire was said to have broken out in the ferry's parking bay, which can hold some 200 vehicles.
Greek television network Mega said there were tankers holding olive oil in the bay. Greek Defence Minister Nikos Dendias told the channel that Italian authorities had responded to a Greek plea for assistance and had now taken charge of the rescue operation. "Our shoes were melting while we were in the reception area," one passenger told Mega.
The "Norman Atlantic" had left the Greek port of Patras at 05:30am (0330 GMT) with 411 passengers and 55 crew on board and had been heading to the Italian port of Ancona when the fire took hold. The evacuation of the ferry was occurring in difficult conditions, with passengers saying gale-force winds were lashing the vessel.