Cruise crash costs Cunard pounds 7m in compensation

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COMPENSATION payments of several thousands of pounds each were being rushed through by the embattled Cunard shipping line yesterday to passengers from the stricken cruise ship, the Royal Viking Sun.

As the first weary tourists arrived back at London's Heathrow Airport, the company tried to calm the waters stirred up when the ship crashed into a coral reef off Egypt's Sinai peninsula last Thursday.

Nobody was hurt when the 37,845-tonne luxury liner struck the reef, but the accident wrecked expensive holidays for 560 passengers, 54 of them Britons.

A Cunard spokesman, Eric Flounders, said the company would send letters to passengers in the next three weeks, telling them they would be reimbursed on a pro-rata basis for the rest of the cruise that was aborted.

"What they get will depend on what grade cabin they had selected," said Mr Flounders. "There would be a daily rate. The payment includes 4 April, the day of the incident.

"They will get a cheque within 21 days. They will also get a two-week cruise of their choice on any ship between now and the end of 1997."

Most passengers paid a minimum of pounds 26,000 for their tickets, according to Cunard, with some spending up to pounds 165,000 for one of the ship's penthouse suites. With half the round-the-world trip still to run when disaster struck, Cunard could be facing minimum compensation of more than pounds 7m.

It will be also paying a large hotel bill in Cairo, where some of the passengers were put up on Friday night, and for repatriation flights to Europe, the United States and the Far East.

British tourists arriving at Heathrow yesterday afternoon were clearly disappointed but could not fault Cunard's handling of the incident. Elizabeth Thacker from Leamington Spa, returning with her husband, Geoffrey, said: "It wasn't pleasant but they did everything they could. The crew were superb. They have given us some compensation already." Among other arrivals was the tenor Renato Pagliari, formerly of the group Renee and Renato, one of the ship's on-board entertainers.

"We were having dinner and suddenly hit a reef and we all fell off the chairs and under the table," he said. "We were nearly capsized, but luckily the captain was very good and got us going and we were ready to evacuate." He said he had been on three cruises with Cunard and there had been incidents on two of them - he was on board the company's MV Sagafjord when she caught fire in the South China Sea last February.

But he said: "It's one of those things. You put it down to experience. Everything was done very, very nice and very calm. Now I can go home and spend Easter with my family in Sutton Coldfield. I'm lucky to be here and to be able to talk about it."

John Gready, from the Channel Islands, said: "We don't know why it happened but the crew were marvellous."

His wife, Aileen, added: "It was very frightening at the time. Suddenly all the lights went out and the ship tilted."

Passengers waiting to leave Egypt yesterday also spoke of their ordeal. Most were in the main dining room enjoying after-dinner coffee and cognac and watching cabaret when the accident occurred. "We felt a jolt, a terrific jolt," said Geoff Edwards, from California. "At first I thought it was an earthquake." Mr Edwards said the singers on the stage "went down like dominoes, that's how big a jolt it was".

Many of the passengers who disembarked at the Egyptian port of Sharm el Sheikh had to be helped down the gangway. Most ignored the Egyptian folklore troupe rushed to the port to sing and dance for them.

The Royal Viking Sun, awarded a travel accolade last year, is expected to remain in port awaiting repairs.