Greek rescuers search burning ferry for 12 missing people

February 19, 2022 GMT
A ferry is on fire at the Ionian Sea near the island of Corfu, Greece, on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022. More than 280 people have been evacuated from the ferry in northwestern Greece that caught fire overnight, while heading to southern Italy, authorities said. (Lazos Mantikos/debater.gr. via AP)
A ferry is on fire at the Ionian Sea near the island of Corfu, Greece, on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022. More than 280 people have been evacuated from the ferry in northwestern Greece that caught fire overnight, while heading to southern Italy, authorities said. (Lazos Mantikos/debater.gr. via AP)
A ferry is on fire at the Ionian Sea near the island of Corfu, Greece, on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022. More than 280 people have been evacuated from the ferry in northwestern Greece that caught fire overnight, while heading to southern Italy, authorities said. (Lazos Mantikos/debater.gr. via AP)
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A ferry is on fire at the Ionian Sea near the island of Corfu, Greece, on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022. More than 280 people have been evacuated from the ferry in northwestern Greece that caught fire overnight, while heading to southern Italy, authorities said. (Lazos Mantikos/debater.gr. via AP)
1 of 15
A ferry is on fire at the Ionian Sea near the island of Corfu, Greece, on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022. More than 280 people have been evacuated from the ferry in northwestern Greece that caught fire overnight, while heading to southern Italy, authorities said. (Lazos Mantikos/debater.gr. via AP)

CORFU, Greece (AP) — Rescue teams in Greece searched a burning ferry Saturday for 12 people believed to be missing after it caught fire in the Ionian Sea while en route to Italy, while passengers described a frightening evacuation from the ship.

After working all night to try to extinguish the blaze that broke out Friday, firefighting vessels surrounded the Euroferry Olympia, which was carrying more than 290 passengers and crew. The Greek coast guard and other boats evacuated about 280 of them to Corfu.

“When we got into the boats, I said ‘I escaped hell,’” truck driver Dimitris Karaolanidis told The Associated Press.

Photos taken Saturday morning showed thick smoke hanging over the ship, which was transporting 153 trucks and 32 cars.

A Greek coast guard spokeswoman told The Associated Press on Saturday afternoon that none of the 12 missing people had been found, although she said only small pockets of fire were active in the ferry.

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A Greek prosecutor on the island of Corfu has ordered an investigation into the cause of the fire, which broke out three hours after the ferry left the port of Igoumenitsa, on the mainland in northwest Greece across from Corfu, for the Italian port of Brindisi. The Italy-based company that operated the ferry said the fire started in a hold where vehicles were parked.

The ship’s captain and two engineers were arrested Friday but were released the same day, authorities said.

Passengers described a dramatic rescue situation.

“We heard the alarm, we thought it was some kind of drill. But we saw through the portholes that people were running,” Karaolanidis told The AP. “You can’t think something at the time (other than) your family ... When I hit the deck, I saw smoke and children. Fortunately, they (the crew) acted quickly.”

“The moments were tragic. It was difficult, guys. Very difficult,” said another truck driver, Dimitris Karavarnitis. “Thankfully the guys responded quickly and ... we will return to our families. That’s what matters.”

On Friday, authorities increased the number of missing from 11 to 12 after discovering that one person from the ferry was not listed on the passenger manifest.

The other missing passengers were believed to be mostly from Bulgaria. Officials said the people rescued included citizens of Albania, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Italy, and Lithuania.

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Gatopoulos and Nellas reported from Athens, Greece. Lefteris Pitarakis contributed from Corfu, Greece.