An international rescue effort was under way in high winds after a car ferry carrying 466 passengers and crew caught fire while sailing from Greece to Italy and its captain ordered its evacuation.
Passengers who telephoned Greek television stations gave dramatic testimony of conditions on the ship, which caught fire just before 6.00 a.m. local time (04:00 GMT) while travelling from Patras in western Greece to the eastern Italian city of Ancona.
"They tried to lower some boats, but not all of us could get in. There is no co-ordination," one said. "It's dark, the bottom of the vessel is on fire. We are on the bridge, we can see a boat approaching... we opened some boxes and got some life vests, we are trying to save ourselves."
It was unclear whether there had been any casualties or whether any passengers were in the water, where cold winter temperatures would make survival difficult unless rescue came quickly.
The Norman Atlantic, carrying 222 vehicles, 411 passengers and 55 crew, was 44 nautical miles northwest of the island of Corfu when it sent a distress signal after a fire started in the lower deck, Greek coast guard officials said.
"The ship is already being evacuated," an official told Reuters, adding that 130 people had been transferred from a rescue boat to a container ship that had been nearby when the fire broke out.
Officials said both Italian and Albanian authorities were taking part in the operation, which was being conducted in difficult conditions with strong winds.
Seven other ships were in the area and rescue helicopters and a C-130 search-and-rescue support aircraft had also been sent.
How the passengers were evacuated?
How saved all 150 passengers from the burning shipNorman Atlantic which had departed at 5:30 pm from Patras to Italy via Igoumenitsa?
The ship «Spirit of Piraeus» was located next to the passenger ferry " Norman atlantic ", where the morning a fire broke out in one of the garages of the unclear cause, while it sailed northwest of Otto.
According to company executive charterer of the shipNorman Atlantic, the situation is under control and early morning ongoing business abandonment, as the fire is great.
Already many of the passengers boarded safely in lifeboats of Norman Atlantic, thrown with the help of the crew at sea, and has already begun and boarding passengers aboard «spirit of Piraeus».
"One hundred and fifty passengers have metepivivastei a lifeboat and are in transit procedure sail ship, the 'Spirit of Piraeus' next to burning car-ferry" reported on the Norman atlantic, speaking on Real FM, spokesman Coast, Nick Lagkadianos.
"The second great lifeboat can not be used because it is from the side of the ship has occurred Fire" added Mr. Lagkadianos.
According to the latest information, priority has been given to women and children and all the passengers gathered on the bridge of the ship Norman Atlantic.
The whole operation is coordinated by the Center Unified Search and Rescue of the Ministry of Shipping and Sea in cooperation with the Italian Coast Guard.
Already helicopter is part of the navy took off from the base of Marathon and rushed two helicopters of the Italian coastguard.
Also four vessels of the Coast Guard are expected, an aircraft c-130, two cargo ships and the cruise ship «cruise Europ 'to assist in the operation.
The Norman atlantic ship had departed at 5:30 pm from Patras to Italy via Igoumenitsa, was chartered to Anek and this whole board 411 passengers, 222 vehicles and 55 crew members.
For this event has already informed the Minister Marine and Aegean Miltiadis Varvitsiotis.
Read why was leaving command of the ship Norman Atlantic with 411 passengers while it was sailing in the sea area 32 nautical miles northwest of Otto destination Ancona.