Fire hits Cunard's attempts to repair its battered image

JAMES CUSICK

The cruise owners Cunard, whose business suffered badly with the QE2's 1994 "voyage from hell", have again run into trouble, this time with a liner cruising the South China Seas.

After fire broke out on Monday in the generator area of the luxury cruise ship Sagafjord, nearly 500 passengers - 56 of them Britons - have had their paradise holiday disrupted.

Yesterday tugs were continuing to tow the stricken liner to the Philippines. A Cunard statement insisted: "Weather conditions remain calm, the ship is in no danger."

By late tomorrow the towing operation is expected to be completed, with the vessel taken to a former naval base at Subic Bay and the passengers taken to accommodation, probably in Manila.

Although the fire was confined to the generator room, the vessel has been without its main source of electrical power for three days. Without a functioning generator, the ship's engines and its propeller cannot function. All areas of the ship are being run on auxiliary power.

The 25,000-ton Sagafjord was en route between Hong Kong and Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia during a scheduled 102-day world cruise. After Malaysia the luxury cruise was to take in Singapore.

Norman McDonalds, of Jardine Davies Transport Services, Cunard's agent in Manila, quoted the Norwegian captain, Tore Lura, as saying the passengers were "doing fine, not too bad". He said engineers were working to restore the ship's power.

During the voyage to the Philippines, passengers will be interviewed by Cunard staff and asked whether they want to continue with the world cruise or fly home. The company said "compensation packages are being devised".

The 102-day voyage began at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on 4 January with the Sagafjord due to return there on 13 April.

The liner entered service in October 1965 and was purchased by Cunard in 1983. She was last refurbished in 1993 and is normally based on the west coast of America. This year was to be her last before being withdrawn from regular passenger work.

For Cunard the fire may prove to be another public relations disaster, coming after the QE2's "voyage from hell" which resulted in the company paying out millions in compensation.

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