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Five injured, 9 missing in ship fire in Caribbean

CARACAS (Reuters) - Five sailors suffered burns and nine were missing after fire broke out on a Greek bulk carrier on Friday, and thick smoke is preventing rescuers from searching for the missing in cabins below the deck, a Venezuelan rescue official said.

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Rafael Lugo, the national commander of Venezuela’s Maritime Rescue and Aid service, told Reuters the “Aegean Wind” was 33 nautical miles (61 km) northeast of the Venezuelan Caribbean island of La Blanquilla.

The Venezuelan navy is sending a helicopter with navy firemen on board to extinguish the blaze, naval commander Carlos Maximo told Globovision TV.

The ship was carrying iron ore to Houston from Brazil. Lugo said the blaze broke out at 4 a.m. (0830 GMT).

Local media earlier quoted Lugo as saying one sailor had died, but he told Reuters that information was found to be erroneous.

He said a Venezuelan navy helicopter lowered a cable to the deck, picked up the injured flew them to Margarita, a Venezuelan Caribbean island resort packed with tourists on Christmas vacation, to be hospitalized.

Two Filipinos suffered third-degree burns including on their face, Lugo said. Three Greek crew mates had less severe burns.

One of the injured was being flown to a military hospital in Caracas for further treatment, said Maximo.

It was unclear if the nine missing sailors had jumped overboard or were trapped under the deck, Maximo said.

Ten surviving crew members remained on deck, both officials said. One was a woman, Lugo added.

Rescue workers awaited the arrival of compressed oxygen tanks pumping air to face masks with visors to search for missing crew members in cabins inside the smoke-filled vessel, Lugo said.

The equipment may arrive Friday night in a navy boat, which would allow the search of the cabins to begin soon afterward, Lugo said.

In Athens, a Greek coast guard official said: “The fire is under control, there is no risk of sinking. Of the missing crew, three are Greek and the rest Philippine nationals.”

Operated by Athens-based Atlantic Bulk Carriers, the ship was built in 1983 and has a crew of 24.

Greek authorities did not know whether the missing crew had jumped into the sea or were trapped in their cabins.

Additional reporting by George Georgiopoulos in Athens; editing by Mohammad Zargham