Smiling passengers voiced relief and gratitude after safely leaving a fire-damaged luxury cruise ship that was stranded at sea for 24 hours and limped without air-conditioning into a Malaysian port early today (NZ time).
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The Azamara Quest drifted off the southern Philippines with 1000 people aboard - including 14 New Zealanders - after flames engulfed one of its engine rooms Friday, injuring five crew members. It restored propulsion the next night and reached the harbour of Sandakan city in Malaysia's eastern state of Sabah on Borneo island late Sunday (about 2am today, NZ time).
"Everything is normal except that it's very hot there because there is no air conditioning," New Zealand Deputy High Commissioner Brian Smythe told reporters before the passengers disembarked.
"The New Zealanders I spoke to are fine. They were well taken care of."
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is now making arrangements to get the Kiwis to the High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, where efforts would be made to then get them home.
The ministry reported all 14 New Zealanders were fit and healthy.
Two ambulances came out of the port shortly after the ship docked, followed more than two hours later around midnight by a fleet of buses taking passengers to hotels. Inside the buses, several people appeared tired, but many others smiled and one man waved to reporters waiting outside the port.
Malaysian police and consular officials from countries including the US, Britain and Canada were also present.
"I'm glad I'm safe," ship passenger Dorothy Irvine, a retired school principal from Toronto, told reporters at a Sandakan hotel. "The Azamara crew kept us informed all the time and went beyond the call of duty. The captain was phenomenal."
Margaret Whawell, of Melbourne, Australia, said there had been "no panic, no chaos, everything was under control."
It was the latest in a series of accidents hitting luxury cruise liners since January, when the Costa Concordia capsized off the coast of Italy, killing 32 people.
Port officials stopped journalists from approaching the Azamara Quest because of what a Malaysian agent for the ship's operator said was part of the company's instructions.
The fire on the Azamara Quest had been extinguished immediately, but five crew members suffered smoke inhalation, including one who was seriously injured and needed hospital care, the ship's operator has said.
A Sandakan hospital staff member said a Guatemalan man was being treated, but could not give other details.
The 11-deck vessel, which features a casino, spa and shopping boutiques, was carrying 590 passengers and 411 crew members. Over one-third, or 201, of the passengers were American, according to lists of passenger and crew nationalities provided by the ship captain to the Philippine coast guard.
The passengers from 25 countries also included 98 from Britain, 89 from Australia, 45 from Canada, 39 from Germany, 32 from Austria, 16 from Belgium, 14 from New Zealand and 14 from Switzerland.
Azamara Club Cruises, the ship's Miami, Florida-based operator, said in a statement yesterday that the ship was sailing at a top speed of only 6 knots (11 kilometres miles per hour) to reach Sandakan.
Company president Larry Pimentel is expected to meet with the passengers and crew in Sandakan later today (NZ time).
Engineers on Saturday morning restored electricity in the ship to re-establish essentials including running water, plumbing, refrigeration and food preparation, the company said.
The company said the rest of the cruise would be cancelled. It said it would fully refund the passengers and provide each guest with a future cruise certificate for the amount paid for the aborted voyage. Azamara Club Cruises is part of Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.
Passengers have been given several options for what to do in the next few days, such as fly home through Singapore, said Smythe, the New Zealand diplomat.
The crew includes 119 Filipinos, 58 Indians and 50 Indonesians. The vessel left Hong Kong on Monday for what was supposed to be a 17-day Southeast Asian cruise. It made a port call in Manila and left for Sandakan on Thursday. It had been scheduled to make several stops in Indonesia before arriving in Singapore on April 12.
Instead, the Philippine coast guard said it drifted Saturday in the Sulu Sea about 130 kilometres south of the Philippines' Tubbataha Reef. The area lies between the Philippines and the island of Borneo, which is divided between Malaysia and Indonesia.
A month after 32 people died when the Costa Concordia ran aground and capsized off the western coast of Italy in January, a fire on the Costa Allegra left that ship without power and adrift in waters known to be prowled by pirates in the Indian Ocean for three days.
Both Costa ships are part of Costa Crociere, SpA, a subsidiary of Carnival Corp., the world's largest cruise operator.