QE2 halted for failing fire rules

Cunard, owner of the QE2, suffered further humiliation yesterday after the US Coast Guard withheld certificates of seaworthiness for the ship, citing fire safety violations.

The Coast Guard's action, which delayed the liner's departure from New York for a Caribbean cruise, compounded the public relations and potential legal catastrophe the company now faces following its decision to allow the ship to depart from Southampton a week ago, even though work on a major refit had not been completed.

In the early hours yesterday when the vessel arrived in New York for what was meant to have been only a five-hour transit stop, Cunard chairman, John Olsen, offered passengers on the transatlantic leg generous compensation and took journalists aboard to inspect the ship.

But it emerged last night that on Tuesday the ship's officers passed a vote of no confidence in Mr Olsen. They were persuaded by the captain not to send a letter to that effect.

While many of those disembarking in New York suggested that reports of the problems had been exaggerated, others eagerly told of their ordeals with broken plumbing, unfinished cabins and restricted access to the ship's public areas. "It was a bit like Beirut," John Clark, of Newcastle upon Tyne, said.

The Coast Guard said last night that inspectors periodically boarded vessels visiting the US and "fairly frequently" withheld certification pending safety alterations. Even so the events represented one more disaster for Cunard. The QE2, considered one of Britain's last symbols of national prestige, by this weekend has become an object of derision.

Even before yesterday's difficulties, 150 passengers were threatening to take legal action, on the basis that lives at sea had been endangered by the work. Any lawsuit would undoubtedly be aided by the evidence uncovered by the US inspectors.

Cunard said it would comply with the Coast Guard's demands and hoped to have the ship certified and ready for departure at 6pm yesterday evening, New York time, 17 hours later than scheduled. The delay makes it likely that rather than being anchored off the Caribbean island of St Marten on Christmas Day, the QE2 passengers may find themselves somewhere off Florida.

The Coast Guard said inspectors had found numerous "safety of life at sea violations", citing faulty ventilation systems and fire doors that were not working. Passengers could also be at risk, it said, because of debris in public corridors.

It said Cunard would have either to get the passengers out of the areas where the problems were discovered, mostly in the aft of the ship, or "completely crack those discrepancies".

Facing a possible sit-in by some of the passengers, Mr Olsen went on board the liner on Friday shortly before its arrival in New York. He offered everyone a full refund for their transatlantic crossing and a credit for 25 per cent of the fare for any future Cunard holiday.

He conceded that Cunard had "underestimated" the extent of the ship's deficiencies when it sailed from Southampton, but said: "There was no compromise to safety on the ship."

However, Karen Clark, a management consultant from California, complained about rolled up carpet in corridors, flooding and wires dangling from walls and ceilings.

Her main concern was what would have happened in an emergency, with many of the corridors blocked. "If we had had to abandon ship, people would have died," she said.

The Department of Transport last night defended its decision to let the QE2 sail. "When the QE2 left the UK it was on a passenger certificate for reduced numbers - for 1,000 people travelling. This was in recognition of the refurbishments. It was not a full certificate."

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