COPENHAGEN, Denmark -- At least 74 people died early Saturday in a fire of suspicious origin that swept through a ferry carrying vacationers from Norway to Denmark, rescue services said. Many passengers were unaccounted for and officials feared the death toll could increase considerably.
The ferry captain told rescue workers he believed the fire was deliberately set. He said it broke out shortly after his crew extinguished another blaze on another deck.
The ferry, the 10,000-ton Danish-operated Scandinavian Star, arrived in port late Saturday after having been towed from where it burst into flames 30 nautical miles south of the mouth to Oslo Fjord.
'The fire is still burning and we do not expect to have fully put it out until sometime later tonight,' said Conny Englund, spokesman for Lysekil Rescue Center.
Englund said the bodies of those who perished would not be removed from the vessel before Sunday.
Lysekil police spokesman Aimo Laaksonen said it was difficult to get an exact death toll, but that the number could eventually go well above the confirmed number of 74. He said 275 people had been rescued. Earlier reports had put the number of rescued at 330.
'There are dead people in corridors all over the ship. It is possible we may even find some 200 dead in all,' Laaksonen said.
'We can confirm that 74 have been killed, but there seem many more still on board. We will only know the final toll after the fire is out,' said British Police Inspector Stephen Richas, who was assisting Swedish police at Lysekil.
Richas was in Sweden on other business and offered his help to Swedish police authorities.
Earlier, Englund told Swedish Television that doctors had counted between 110 and 130 dead.
'Most of those found dead appear to have been in the upper decks,' said Anders Johansson of Gothenburg, Sweden, whose 21 firefighters were flown to the blazing vessel.
'We can reasonably assume the rest of those on board have perished,' Laaksonen said, adding the exact number of passengers and crew was still unknown.
'We were woken, heard the fire alarm and rushed to the rear of the ship where 40 people were waiting. There was no panic, but the smoke was terrible,' said Christian Nybo, 20, one of the rescued passengers.
'When we arrived, the ship was full of thick, black smoke. It was very, very hot and there was buckled metal everywhere,' said Sven Johan Svensen, one of the firefighters.
Fires aboard the Scandinavian Star began at 2:30 a.m. Saturday while the passenger and car ferry was on its way with Easter vacationers from Oslo, Norway's capital, to Denmark's northern port of Frederikshavn.
Sailors' organizations in Denmark and Sweden criticized safety and crew conditions on board the Scandinavian Star, which was put on the Oslo-Frederikshavn route less than a week ago.
'The (Filipino and Portugese) crew could not understand each other and, from the reports we have received, did not seem trained for such an emergency,' said Henrik Berlau, spokesman for Denmark's Sailors' Union.
He added the union had heard reports that safety devices on board the vessel did not appear to work.
'There must be a complete investigation into this tragedy,' Berlau said.
The vessel's captain, Hugo Larsen, told rescue officers there were two fires. The first broke out on the Caribbean deck of the vessel, but was quickly extinguished by the crew. The second started on a deck above after the first fire was out.
'In the captain's view, we are looking at a deliberate act of arson,' Sven Voxtorp of Denmark's Naval Rescue Service said.
There were conflicting reports as to how many passengers and crew had been on board the vessel.
'At present, we are not sure of the total numbers. Therefore it is difficult for us to give a full picture of how many are missing,' said Norwegian Rescue Center spokeswoman Eldbjoerg Vaage.
Earlier Saturday, more than 50 rescued passengers suffering from smoke inhalation and shock were taken to Norwegian and Swedish hospitals.
Johansson said the identities and nationalities of those killed were not immediately available, but that most passengers on board were Danish nationals or Norwegian vacationers going to Denmark for Easter holidays.
The Scandinavian Star plies a route between Norway and Denmark that is highly popular among Norwegian old-age pensioners for inexpensive weekend trips.
The Scandinavian Star is run by the Danish Vognmandsruten company under charter to the Danish DA-NO line.
NTB said the ferry sailed under a Bahamian flag and was manned by Norwegian officers and Portugese and Filipino crew.
The prime ministers of Norway and Denmark, Jan Syse and Poul Schluter, and Denmark's monarch, Queen Margrethe, issued statements of condolence Saturday to the families of those killed, describing the event as 'a terrible tragedy.'
Denmark and Norway's governments announced that all flags were to fly at half-staff on public buildings Sunday.