One dead as hundreds await rescue on burning ferry

One man died trying to escape a burning ferry in the Adriatic Sea on Sunday afternoon, and hundreds more were awaiting rescue as night fell on the beleaguered vessel.

Rescue crews worked into the night to airlift passengers by helicopter from the Italian-flagged Norman Atlantic, which caught on fire Sunday morning off the coast of Greece.

In the early hours of Monday morning, the Italian Coast Guard confirmed that 201 people had been rescued. It's believed 276 are still on board the burning vessel.

The fire has been contained, but smoke and weather conditions hindered extracting passengers in metal baskets from the ferry. They are being transported to merchant ships and an Italian Navy transport dock, from where they will eventually continue on to the Italian port of Brindisi or hospitals.

Passengers suffering from smoke inhalation and hypothermia will be brought to hospitals in southern Italy, the Italian Coast Guard said.

With rescue efforts under way, the focus of Italian and Greek media is shifting to the cause of the blaze, which is believed to have started in the ship's parking bay. At least one truck driver told the Greek news media that trucks filled with oil were "packed like sardines," cargo scraping the ceiling, which could have set off sparks in rough seas to start a fire, he surmised.

Those remaining on board awaited rescue on the upper deck -- "dying of cold and suffocating from the smoke" even as their feet were "burning" from the fire's heat, said a Greek passenger who called Italy's state broadcaster RAI TV.

The disaster made national headlines in Greece, Italy and other countries with citizens aboard the ferry. In a Sunday morning public address, Pope Francis offered "affection and prayers" to those affected by the Norman Atlantic ferry fire as well as a collision in the Adriatic Sea between two merchant ships.

Thick clouds of smoke enveloped the vessel earlier Sunday as rescuers awaited an opportunity to approach. At least eight ships were deployed, but heavy winds and freezing waters kept them at bay, making evacuation by air the only feasible option.

Turkish diplomatic personnel are heading to Igoumenitsa, the likely port for evacuated passengers, according to a Turkish Foreign Ministry statement. Turkish citizens were among the passengers, with Greeks and Italians making up the majority.