Challenged by foul weather and racing to rescue nearly 500 passengers and crew before nightfall, international relief teams began airlifts from a flaming ferry stranded between Greece and Italy.
Although the cause of the fire remained unclear, authorities in Athens said at least 140 passengers had been rescued from the Italian-flagged Norman Atlantic nearly 10 hours after a first distress alert was signaled, and a series of explosions engulfed the vessel in flames.
Six all-weather military helicopters -- four from Italy and two from Greece -- were airlifting passengers in pairs, taking them to safety in Italy. Despite harsh weather conditions, authorities said the rescue operation would continue through the night.
One person was reported dead and another injured. Details about the victims were not released. Authorities in Athens say a man died while trying to flee the flaming ship through an evacuation slide. His wife was rescued and is being transported to the italian port city of Brindisi.
Survivors suggested some passengers may still be missing.
"All of us made it, except one," said Fotis Tsandakidis, among the first who managed to evacuate the Norman Atlantic aboard a plastic life raft. "An Italian priest fell into the sea as he was trying to latch onto a rope ladder."
"I have yet to see him among us."
Merchant Marine Minister Miltiadis Varvitsiotis said the ongoing operation was "difficult and risky," facing gale force winds, heavy hail and low visibility. He said ongoing explosions on the ferry were under control.
Eight other ships sped to the ferry that was drifting in the water without propulsion. Several attempts to rescue passengers failed before Italian authorities took command of the operation and fierce weather conditions abated.
Freezing temperatures could make the chances of survival in the frigid waters very difficult.
News of the ferry fire sent shockwaves across the country. Scheduled programming was interrupted and passenger accounts of the rescue operation were dramatic.
"We are burning and sinking, no one can save us," Nikos Papatheodosiou told Greek TV by telephone. "Please help us! Don't leave us," he said before hanging up.
"There is no coordination," an other passenger told MEGA TV. "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."
Plans to tug the the burning ship to safe shore were abandoned because of the bad weather conditions.