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passengers feared missing as hundreds rescued near Corfu

Firefighters and rescuers raced to free two truck drivers still trapped in a burning ferry off northwestern Greece Friday after most of the nearly 300 people on board were evacuated, while authorities said another 11 people were reported missing.

The coast guard said 278 passengers and crew had been rescued from a fire that engulfed the Italy-bound Euroferry Olympia with 291 people on board near the Greek island of Corfu.

Officials said two truck drivers were stranded on the burning vessel awaiting a helicopter rescue that required assistance from Fire Department special forces due to the thick smoke that continued to billow out of the vessel.

The cause of the blaze was unclear. The Italy-based ferry company said it started in a hold where vehicles were parked.

“This is a difficult operation and we must remain cautious. The final accounting of the people on board will take place on Corfu when everyone rescued is assembled there,” Greek Deputy Minister for Shipping Costas Katsafados told state-run ERT television.

The rescued passengers were transported to Corfu where 10 people were hospitalized. None were in serious condition and most had breathing difficulties.

The predawn fire broke out in the Ionian Sea on the Italy-flagged Euroferry Olympia three hours after it left the port of Igoumenitsa in northwest Greece for the Italian port of Brindisi. Greek authorities said 239 passengers and 51 crew members on board, adding that the vessel was transporting more than 153 trucks and 32 cars.

The 600-foot ferry, built in 1995, is operated by the Grimaldi Group, based in Naples, Italy. It was traveling near the small Greek island of Ereikousa, 15 kilometers north of Corfu, when the fire started. Helicopter video released by the Greek coast guard showed thick smoke billowing from the vessel hours after the rescue started.

Smoke rises from the Euroferry Olympia, after a fire broke out off the island of Corfu in Greece on Friday.Adonis Skordilis / Reuters

Greek truck driver Giorgos Parlantzas, one of the rescued passengers, recounted what took place on the Euroferry Olympia.

“I was sleeping in my cabin when they came to alert us. I grabbed my ID and headed for the deck where people were being assembled. It must have been about 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. And we were put onto boats,” Parlantzas told the AP, speaking by telephone after arriving in Corfu.

Six boats from Greece’s coast guard and navy participated in the rescue effort along with four helicopters, an Italian customs inspection boat and several passing vessels, senior coast guard official Nikos Lagadianos said.

A coast guard vessel from nearby Albania was also assisting, along with several firefighting vessels and privately-chartered boats.

Rescued passengers, many wrapped in foil blankets, arrived in Corfu aboard the Italian inspection vessel and were being taken to an assembly area where paramedics were carrying out first aid checks, local officials said.

Italy’s customs agency said 243 people were rescued by its vessel.

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