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Welding Torch Sparked Ship Fire

A spark from a welder's torch in a laundry room raced through an air duct and caused an "explosive-type" fire aboard the cruise ship Ecstasy, the president of Carnival Corp. said Tuesday.

Company president Bob Dickinson said the fire on the second deck quickly spread Monday to two decks above and the outside mooring area.

Thick, black smoke billowed from the stern of the ship Monday as it passed the Miami Beach skyline into open water. Coast Guard Lt. Dennis Seehoaus said Carnival Cruise Lines initially told him the crew was dealing with a small fire and didn't need help.

The National Transportation Safety Board had announced Tuesday that it would investigate the fire. NTSB officials said they were not only concerned about how the blaze began, but also how the crew of Ecstasy responded, Andrew Colton of CBS News Station WFOR-TV in Miami reports.

The fire started a few hours after it left a Miami port Monday afternoon for a cruise to Cozumel, Mexico. More than 2,000 passengers hoping for a four-day excursion were moved to the front of the ship, as the laundry room in the back burned.

Several Coast Guard ships arrived to battle the flames, while members of the crew pitched in with water hoses on board, CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts reports.

A half hour before the blaze broke out, vacationers went through fire safety drills with the crew.

"Half an hour later, the real thing happened," one woman said.

About 60 people were injured in the fire, most of them suffering from smoke inhalation and one with an undisclosed heart problem. At least 11 people were taken to hospitals.

"Within a minute's time, the fire doors in that area of the ship totally isolated that part of the vessel," said Bob Dickinson, president of Carnival. "TheÂ…air-conditioning system was shut down so that the fire would not get any oxygen internally."

Passengers on main deck
It took firefighters, who arrived in tugboats, three hours to put out the flames. Before they came, crew members sprayed the fire with water hoses. Although many of the passengers assembled calmly on the main deck at the front of the 855-foot-long ocean liner, no lifeboats were lowered into the water.

A tugboat pulled the 70,367-ton ship back to the Port of Miami, trailed by three boats spraying water on the lower levels. Crews worked on cooling down hot spots before the ship got to shore.

The ship moored at the Port of Miami early Tuesday, and passengers boarded buses for hotels. More than 800 went to the Fountainebleau Hilton Resort and Towers, which had to bring in extra workers and chefs to handle the crush.

Dickinson said the passengers would receive a full refund and a free cruise.

Before help arrived
Firefighters and passengers praised the efforts of the ship's crew to battle the flames. "The crew was very good," one passenger said. "They kept the customers calm and entertained."

"There was definitely heroism," said Steve Hofman of the Miami Beach Fire Department. He said that one crew officer had to be ordered off the ship to be taken to the hospital.

However, some passengers said there were not enough life jackets for all of the vacationers. One couple told CBS News that they were told to go back to their cabins to get their life preservers, but then barred from leaving the bow of the ship, because of the fire.

The U.S. Coast Guard first saw the smoke coming from the rear of the Ecstasy and radioed the ship, petty officer Jeff Murphy said. Residents in high rises on Miami Beach also telephoned the Coast Guard.

The cause of the fire was being investigated.

A fire broke out on another Carnival cruise ship, Celebration, in June 1995 as it drifted near the Bahamian island of San Salvador in Miami reports. No one was injured in that fire, and the more than 2,500 aboard were picked up by - ironically - the Ecstasy.

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