Cruise ship towed ashore as 700 escape fire

New rescue team averts disaster as engine room blaze endangers lives on holiday ship bound for Guernsey
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A cruise ship with more than 700 people on board was towed ashore last night after a fire in an engine room left it adrift in the English Channel.

Hundreds of passengers were roused in their cabins when fire broke out early yesterday morning, only hours after the Calypso sailed from Tilbury, Essex, on its way to St Peter Port in Guernsey.

Rescue services were scrambled, and firefighters flew out to the ship as it drifted about 20 miles off Beachy Head. Lifeboats from Britain and France were sent to the stricken liner. No casualties were reported, but a coastguard spokesman said that a team of paramedics was also flown by helicopter to the ship.

"We think that some of the passengers might have had a pretty traumatic time this morning," he said.

Many of the passengers were employees and guests of the Dutch travel company Cruise Travel. Corry Broere, a spokeswoman for the firm, told the BBC: "My family is on board and they phoned me, and of course they had been frightened, but when they called me everything was already very calm ... the fire was not [burning] for a long time."

Passengers and crew boarded the ship's lifeboats, but the fire was put out before a full evacuation was ordered. "They smothered the engine room with CO 2, which is normal procedure, and they have managed to extinguish the fire," said an official in Dover, where the rescue was co-ordinated.

Joanne Groenenberg, of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, said rescuers decided it would be too risky to evacuate the ship before it returned to dock in Southampton. "It is quite a dangerous environment to be at sea in a lifeboat, so it was much safer to keep them on board," she said.

Calypso arrived at Southampton at 7.40pm. The Cyprus-registered ship was carrying 246 crew and 462 passengers, among them 454 Dutch, one Briton and one American. The cause of the fire is still unknown.

A spokesman for Louis Cruise Line, which owns Calypso, said: "The passengers are disappointed that their cruise has been cut short by two days but otherwise impressed by how smoothly the operation has been carried out."

Six fire investigators were lifted by helicopter on to the 38-year-old vessel, in the first deployment by the new Maritime Incident Response Group. Launched last month, the unit is the UK's first specialised fire and rescue service for incidents at sea. Last night, 18 firefighters from East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service were still on board the ship, cooling the blaze area.