Cruise passengers reach port, tell of panic

Passengers of the Costa Allegra cruise ship look for their baggage upon their arrival at Victoria's harbor, Seychelles Island, March 1, 2012.
AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia
Updated at 6:29 a.m. Eastern.

(AP) VICTORIA, Seychelles - Hot and tired passengers disembarking from a disabled cruise ship Thursday in the Seychelles said they had prepared to abandon ship when fire broke out in the engine room three days ago, leaving the vessel adrift in waters prowled by pirates.

Life boats were even lowered, passengers said. Austrian Thomas Foaller said some passengers began to panic. Couples that were separated were calling out to each other, he said.

Among them were American couple Gordon and Eleanor Bradwell of Athens, Georgia. They were separated when Eleanor went to the couple's room to get a life vest. A crew member had handed the 72-year-old Gordon his own.

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But the fire that broke out Monday was brought under control and the more than 1,000 people wound up staying aboard the Costa Allegra, which suddenly had no engine power, no air conditioning and no running water for showers or toilets.

Eleanor Bradwell said that the initial response to the alarm seemed to be disorganized but overall she and her husband felt the shipping line had handled the emergency well.

"It could have been worse than it was," said Gordon Bradwell. "It could have been disastrous ... we're here, we're alive."

The couple ate cold sandwiches for three days and moved their bedding onto the deck to escape the stifling heat after the fire left the Costa Allegra without power.

"The toilets were running over, there was no electricity. It was very hot," said Eleanor Bradwell.

The couple said they realized the alarm must be real when it went off on Monday because they had already done the drill. When the fire first broke out, passengers were directed to put on their life jackets and go to stations on the deck, they said. Life boats were lowered but no one got in after the fire was contained.

Dozens of officials flocked to the port Thursday to help passengers ashore, a couple of whom applauded as the ship approached land.

The Seychelles Red Cross set up tents to assist any passengers needing medical help and embassy and consular officials were at the port to receive their citizens. Tour operators lined up dozens of buses to take passengers to either the airport or a Seychelles resort. Disembarkation of the more than 1,000 people onboard was expected to take several hours.

The cause of the fire is unknown. A French fishing vessel towed the cruise ship to the Seychelles.

U.S. Consular Agent Travis Jensen said he was a the docks here to help ensure the health and safety of Americans onboard.

"We haven't been in contact with the ship because they were on battery power," he said. "No emergency evacuations have been reported."