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7 dead, 419 rescued from burning ferry in Adriatic

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(CNN) — [Breaking news update 9:39 a.m.]

Seven deaths have been confirmed after a fire broke out on the Norman Atlantic ferry, the Italian Coast Guard says on Twitter.

(CNN) — [Breaking news update 7:22 a.m. ET ]

The Italian Coast Guard says 419 people have been rescued from the ferry that caught fire in the Adriatic Sea on Sunday morning.

(CNN) — Hundreds of passengers have endured a freezing night on a stricken ferry, more than 24 hours after a fire broke out on the vessel en route to Italy in the Adriatic Sea.

Smaller helicopters with night vision equipment worked through the night to pull passengers off the ferry, one by one, but the pace is expected to pick up with daylight Monday as larger helicopters rejoin the mission.

On Monday morning, the Italian Navy announced that more than 300 people had been rescued from the Norman Atlantic, which was traveling between the Greek port of Igoumenitsa and the Italian port of Ancona when fire broke out deep in the parking bay.

Authorities said more than 100 remained on board.

An Italian Navy medical team boarded the ship Monday to aid passengers, some of whom were suffering hypothermia and smoke inhalation, the Italy Navy said. The already cold conditions were worsened by the spray of tugboat hoses as authorities attempted to douse the flames.

After waiting hours in rough conditions, one Greek man told Italian state broadcaster RAI TV that passengers were “dying of cold and suffocating from the smoke,” and that their feet were “burning” from the heat of the flames.

One man died after he jumped or fell into the cold water, authorities said.

Dramatic cell phone images filmed by a passenger showed flames through shattered portholes, while a wider view released by rescuers showed a huge plume of thick, black smoke streaming from the stricken vessel.

Lifeboats ‘stopped working’

In the first three hours of the blaze, around 150 people were able to escape via the vessel’s lifeboats. But when the ferry lost power, the electronic arms were unable to function, leaving the boats dangling uselessly by its side.

Rescue efforts were hampered by strong winds, choppy seas and thick smoke, which prevented other boats from getting close enough to the vessel to get people off.

Many passengers were also unable to reach the lower decks because of the heat, and the water below was so cold that jumping clear of the ferry was not an option.

Passengers able to escape the ferry told Greek and Italian newsgroups they felt like “prisoners on a burning ship.”

Conditions weren’t expected to improve on Monday, according to CNN meterologist Tom Sater. He said while the storm system was moving away, another was forming to the south that would sweep cold air through the rescue area. “Stronger winds from a storm system moving across the south could case problems for the next 24 to 48 hours,” he said.

Sea surface temperatures were currently around 14 to 15 degrees Celsius (57 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit), he said, limiting the survival time if anyone should fall in to up to six hours.

Survivors taken to port

The Italian Navy said medical personnel were lowered onto the vessel early Monday, amid reports some passengers were suffering from smoke inhalation and hypothermia.

Hours earlier, a tugboat was attached to the ferry in an effort to hold it steady while helicopter pilots worked to shuttle passengers onto nearby merchant vessels.

A freighter carrying 49 rescued passengers was expected to arrive in Brindisi, Italy, near the port of Bari, the Italian Coast Guard said Monday. Passengers needing medical attention would be taken to nearby hospitals.

Fire spread quickly

It’s not known how the fire started, but it’s believed to have originated in the parking bay. At least one truck driver told the Greek news media that trucks filled with oil were “packed like sardines,” their cargo scraping the ceiling, which could have set off sparks in rough seas to start a fire, he surmised.

Greek authorities said the vessel’s fire doors appeared to have failed which allowed the flames to spread quickly.

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 released Sunday. Turkish citizens were among the passengers, with Greeks and Italians making up the majority.