Passengers feared crash would be a new `Titanic'

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An investigation has been launched into a collision in the English Channel between a cruise liner and and a cargo ship in which 2,400 passengers and crew had an extraordinary escape.

As the 46,000-tonne liner, Norwegian Dream, limped into Dover with a gaping 30ft hole ripped into its hull, the huge container ship Ever Decent, carrying a hazardous cargo of chemicals, was ablaze off the coast of Margate with damage to the ballast tanks. Several of the blazing containers held paint and paint hardener, and there were fears that noxious fumes might drift to shore.

Traumatised passengers on board the luxury liner talked of fearing "another Titanic" after the 1am crash yesterday. The international maritime inquiry will have to establish how the two vessels, with highly sophisticated warning systems, crashed into each other in good weather in some of the world's most closely monitored sea lanes.

Containers from the 52,000 ton Panamanian-registered Ever Decent landed on the bow deck of the liner, registered in the Bahamas, injuring 26 crew and passengers. The cargo ship caught fire and the blaze was still being fought last night.

Because the accident took place outside the UK's territorial waters, the inquiry is likely to be an international one. John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, said Britain's Marine Investigation Branches will cooperate fully with Bahamian and Panamanian authorities.

Some on the liner blamed the cargo vessel, which had been approaching from behind. "Our ship was lit up like Christmas tree, there were lights everywhere," said Jan Hulsebos, a passenger. "How could the container ship not see us?"

Linda Perham, MP for Ilford North, east London, who was also on board, said "The problem I have is understanding how a big white ship with lots of lights on it can collide with another very large ship."

The Norwegian Dream was on the last night of a cruise when the collision happened. Some of the passengers were enjoying a nightcap at the bar, others a last stroll on the deck. A few had gone to bed.

The impact was shattering. The bewildered travellers on board saw another hulking vessel looming over them out of the dark, crunching into the side and coming to rest within a few feet of crushing them.

Stacy Catz, 22, a White House intern from Springfield, New Jersey, was in cabin 6223, which felt the full force of the hit. "I was asleep in bed and was literally flung out of my bed, the floor buckled up. There was glass flying everywhere. It was a huge bang", she said. "I was very, very frightened. I didn't know what to think."

Her mother, Sharon, 50, added: "We were in the same cabin. I was so scared that my daughter was going to be washed out of the window."

Mr Hulsebos, a director of Vantage World Travel, was dozing at the time. "There was this huge crash. I had done military service and it was like five hand grenades going off. Outside the porthole I could see this other ship bearing down. It was so close I could have shaken hands with someone on deck," he said.

Arielle Adelman, 16, from New York, said: "We weren't sure if it was going to sink. When I heard the bang I really pictured another Titanic and started running to the deck."

The Norwegian Dream was under the command of Captain Robert Teige, a Norwegian national. Built in 1992 and refurbished last year, it has two swimming pools, five restaurants, a casino and a multitude of bars. In the early hours of the morning, passengers ended their cruise by gathering ice from the bars to tend injuries.

In the meantime, an international investigation began into what caused the accident. The owners of the Ever Decent, Taiwan-based Evergreen Marine Corporation, confirmed that the ship's UK pilot had already left when the collision took place. However, the vessel carried a North Sea pilot "as a matter of routine while in European waters."

A company spokesman said two bays of the vessel had been damaged but there had been no pollution of the sea. Norwegian Cruise Line, the US company which owns the cruise liner, said that the crew had handled the situation according to procedure.

The Dover Coastguard said the ships were in a recognised crossing point of a shipping lane and that the Taiwanese vessel's master, Captain Shu, had started to take her towards shallow water over a sand bank when the crash took place.

"There was absolutely no sign of trouble before the the collision," said Rod Johnson, commanding officer of the Dover Coastguard. "No radio messages were taken from either ship. It is possible for ships in one lane to join other lanes at certain points. This is what the Ever Decent did in joining the south-west lane."

Most of the Norwegian Dream's passengers were middle-aged and elderly Americans who had paid up to pounds 2,575 for a 12-day trip around the cultural capitals of Europe. Instead, they disembarked into a cold and wet dock. With little hotel space available, they were offered a night on board the still seaworthy ship before being flown home today. Others made their own arrangements.

But their disappointment was nothing compared to another batch of passengers who had arrived to start their cruise. Dan Peterson, 81, of Kingsville, Texas, said bitterly: "I came from a hurricane area. Most of our flights were cancelled and we had to get a second plane from Houston and go on a huge detour around the country to get here, and then this happens. It is so unfair."