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Greek rescue forces were desperately trying to put out fires raging for a second day on an Italian cruise liner off Corfu as the search for 12 missing people intensified.

Firefighters battled flames spouting from inside the ferry as state TV showed footage of the Italian-flagged Euroferry Olympia engulfed in thick, acrid smoke. Efforts to bring the blaze under control were hampered by strong winds on Saturday, while intense heat from the ship prevented rescuers from landing there, the broadcaster reported.

“The fire is still burning and the firefighting vessels are trying to put it out,” Greek Shipping Minister Ioannis Plakiotakis told Skai TV.

Hundreds of passengers were rescued in what Plakiotakis described as a heroic rescue operation after the boat’s Italian captain ordered people to abandon ship when the fire broke out at 4.12am on Friday.

As night fell, two men – a Bulgarian migrant and an Afghan migrant – trapped in the ship’s garage were airlifted by winched commandos to the ship from a Super Puma helicopter. The 65-year-old Bulgarian is said to be in critical condition at Corfu General Hospital.

Officials said a range of ships from different navy arms, as well as elite forces, were taking part in the rescue operation.

“We are doing everything to save those who are missing,” said Greek Coast Guard spokesman Nikolaos Alexiou, adding that they were all men. When asked if it was too late, he replied: “The goal is to find them.”

The Ministry of Navigation said passengers who remained missing included nationals of Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and Lithuania. All were considered truck drivers.

Nine people, including two rescue workers, had spent the night in hospital, most suffering from respiratory problems.

Among the 280 people who managed to flee the stricken ship were children, babies and two migrants not on the official passenger list, described as stowaways. All had spent the night in hotels on the Ionian Island.

Bound for Brindisi, the 183-metre Grimaldi Lines ferry had set sail from Igoumenitsa, the largest port in western Greece, with 239 passengers and 51 crew members officially on board. The fire is believed to have started on a car deck on the third level, 10 miles north of Corfu, according to a statement released by the Italian shipping company. A total of 25 vehicles and 153 trucks were registered on the ship.

Rescued passengers compared the scenes to the Titanic, saying that once it became clear the fire could not be contained and the flames reached the passenger deck, ‘panic and chaos’ erupted at edge.

“It was so unreal, it was a bit like the Titanic, but it was real,” David Waller, a 58-year-old trucker, told Reuters.

Another truck driver, described as Albanian, said he believed death had “come for me”.

“There was so much smoke. I thought we wouldn’t make it,” he told Greek public television. “It took us about an hour and a half to get into the lifeboats and about three more hours to be picked up.”

Many said they lost everything in the fire, listing passports, money, luggage, trucks and vehicles.

An Italian Finance Police boat, which was in the area, was credited with playing a key role in the rescue operation, with the country’s President Sergio Mattarella personally calling the commander of the unit of finances to thank him. Local fishing boats also rushed to the scene to search for people who may have jumped in the water.

The ferry captain and two mechanics appeared before a prosecutor on Saturday as a legal investigation was officially opened. Greek authorities have described the incident as the worst maritime disaster since 2014, when the Italian passenger ferry Norman Atlantic caught fire in the Adriatic Sea, killing up to 22 people – including illegal immigrants who had snuck on board .

Athens’ shipping ministry said once the fire is out, the Euroferry Olympia will be towed to safety so its tanks can be emptied to avoid an environmental disaster in the area.

theguardian Gt

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