UK

Four Britons Among 300 Rescued From Stricken Ferry, But 160 Still Trapped

29/12/2014 10:12 GMT | Updated 29/12/2014 11:59 GMT

Four British nationals have been rescued from a stricken Greek ferry which caught fire in the Adriatic, with five people now believed to have died as flames consume the vessel.

They were among a number of Britons on board the Norman Atlantic, which was travelling from the western Greek port of Patras to the Italian port of Ancona, with 422 passengers and 56 crew members on board.

Some 300 people have been rescued but more than 160, including a number of Britons, remain on board the smoke-stricken ferry which is now adrift in rough seas between Italy and Albania.

At least one person was killed in the risky rescue operation, a Greek man who died after becoming trapped in a lifeboat chute, and two others were injured as Italian and Greek rescue ships and helicopters worked through the night plucking passengers off the stricken vessel and bringing them to safety aboard the 10 or so mercantile ships nearby that were summoned to help.

Four more people were found dead on Monday, but details have not been released as to the circumstances

The fire broke out on a car deck on board the Norman Atlantic before dawn Sunday as it sailed from Greece toward Italy.

A cargo ship, the Spirit of Piraeus, carrying 49 people evacuated from the ferry arrived in the Italian port of Bari this morning, though it is not known if the Britons were among them. Most evacuees were set to be brought to shore later after the rescue was completed, Greek officials said, but the Spirit of Piraeus left ahead of the pack.

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A survivor of the ferry 'Norman Atlantic' is taken in an ambulance in an emergency stretcher after disembarking from the ship 'Siprit of Piraeus'

A spokeswoman for the Foreign Office said: "From the passenger manifest, and other information available to us, we know that a number of British nationals were on board the Norman Atlantic.

"Local authorities have confirmed to us that four British nationals have been rescued so far. The rescue operation is ongoing and we remain in close touch with the Italian authorities."

One British passport holder has been evacuated, as have three other Britons who have dual citizenship but were travelling on different passports.

It was thought a second British passport holder - Nick Channing-Williams, a British showjumper based in Greece - had been airlifted to safety with his Greek fiancee, Regina Theoffili. But his family have said Italian officials informed them that, while she has been rescued, he is still on the boat.

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A Singapore-flagged container vessel carrying 49 people evacuated from a car ferry which caught fire with some 480 people on board in the Adriatic Sea have arrived in the Italian port of Bari

His mother, Dottie, from Berkshire, said the family were "very, very worried" and had been up all night trying to find out what had happened to him.

She told the BBC that a Greek minister phoned Ms Theoffili's family yesterday and told them the couple were both being airlifted off.

But she later learned that while her son's fiancee was now being treated in hospital, Mr Channing-Williams remains on the ship and is in a small group of passengers who have become separated from a larger group.

Mrs Channing-Williams said: "We have had a message to say that he hopes that Regina made it because it feels like 'no boats around and only the helicopter. We are six people who tried to get the boat towed, maybe you could call someone as six of us are stuck in the front and there are no boats close by'.

"We think has happened is that they are changing the rescue into helicopters more than boats, and the Foreign Office has said that there are in fact 200 people at least on board, so they are not on their own, these six people.

"But they have obviously got separated, and knowing Nicholas - 'Oh yes, well, I will help you out with that' - and they have obviously lost the other big group, so I am not quite sure what is going to happen with that, so that is all very worrying."

Mrs Channing-Williams said she had not heard from her son directly since yesterday.

She said: "The gentleman that telephoned us to say that Regina had arrived at the port and was being taken to hospital, said that he (Nicholas) was in good spirits, so we know that he is there, we know he is on board, but we also now know that he has become separated from the large group, so it is just a rollercoaster.

"One minute you think everything is fine and the next minute you are very, very worried indeed, so it is very hard."

Mrs Channing-Williams said her son regularly took the ferry from Greece to Italy, and would then drive to the UK. She said: "That is what he was doing this time - he was coming over to look at horses and then spending New Year's Eve with us, and now we just hope that they are going to be both OK and we can put this behind us."

While the Spirit of Piraeus' arrival was the first big group of evacuees to be brought ashore, other survivors had been taken to southern Italian hospitals in smaller numbers in the hours immediately after the rescue operation got underway. Several were treated for hypothermia, some for mild carbon monoxide poisoning and one woman suffered a fractured pelvis, officials said.

Dr. Raffaele Montinaro at the hospital in Lecce said the three children taken there were in "excellent" condition, and emergency room doctor Antonio Palumbo said a pregnant woman was also in good condition.

"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.

Helicopters rescued passengers throughout the night, completing 34 sorties with winds over 46 mph. The Greek coast guard said seven people had been airlifted from the ferry to Corfu.

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In this image taken from a video released by the Italian Coast Guard, smoke billows from the Italian-flagged Norman Atlantic that caught fire in the Adriatic Sea

"Notwithstanding the weather and the darkness, which is another factor, we persisted throughout the entire night," Italian coast guard Admiral Giovanni Pettorino told Sky TG24.

Those remaining on board were given thermal blankets and found places to wait protected from the elements "even if the conditions remain very difficult," Pettorino said.

Italian navy Captain Riccardo 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," Rizzotto said.

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, Pettorino said.

Pettorino said 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 to stabilise the ferry, 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.

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