Passengers safe after blaze on North Sea ferry

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The Independent Online

A fire on a North Sea ferry carrying nearly 900 passengers and crew sparked a major air and sea rescue operation which ended when the blaze was brought under control early today.

A fire on a North Sea ferry carrying nearly 900 passengers and crew sparked a major air and sea rescue operation which ended when the blaze was brought under control early today.

The Princess of Scandinavia, owned by DFDS Seaways, part of the Danish DFDS group, sent out a Mayday signal shortly before 10.45pm last night after fire broke out in the engine room and the funnel.

Eight helicopters and a Nimrod jet were scrambled to the scene by the RAF. The Royal Navy, North Sea oil rigs and the Norwegian search and rescue service were also put on stand-by to evacuate passengers.

But the rescue operation was called off this morning after the blaze was extinguished and engineers managed to restart the ships engines.

The vessel was today limping to its first port of call at Kristiansand, Norway, at least eight hours behind schedule.

There are 758 passengers and 126 crew on board the ferry. Of the passengers, 246 are from the UK, 428 are Swedish, 71 are Norwegian and 13 are Danish.

The ferry left Newcastle at 3pm yesterday and was due to stop in Kristiansand at 9.15am local time (8.15am UK time) today and Gothenburg in Sweden, where it was due to arrive at 5.30pm local time today (4.30pm UK time).

At the height of the drama, the RAF scrambled a Nimrod jet and helicopters equipped to take passengers off to nearby oil rigs.

Aberdeen Coastguard sent 13 vessels to the scene, equipped with medics and rescue equipment.

The Nimrod was despatched from RAF Kinloss, and helicopters from Lossiemouth, Boulmer and Wattisham were also involved in the rescue.

They were joined by a Royal Navy helicopter based at Prestwick, Ayrshire, two oil rig helicopters and a Norwegian search and rescue helicopter.

But the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) said it would only evacuate passengers if the crew were unable to contain the fire.

There were no injuries on board the vessel, but the ship lost power and was left to drift 150 miles south-east of Aberdeen.

Crew members managed to put out the fires within two hours and set to work to try to restart the engines so she could make her way into port.

Just after 2am, one of the ship's four main engines spluttered into action and the vessel began making her way to Kristiansand, where she was due to arrive in the late afternoon today. She will not now be continuing her journey to Gothenburg.

A few of the 884 passengers on board, who were all sent out on deck during the emergency, were suffering from shock but weather conditions were said to be "very good" with light winds and a slight mist.

The passengers were allowed back inside the ship, with only two having to be treated for light shock.

A spokesman for DFDS, said: "It was very important to the passengers that the crew acted very fast and they also had the fire under control pretty fast.

"We think that the boat will arrive by late afternoon tomorrow, between 5-6pm, but we don't know exactly because it depends on the weather."

Once in port, an investigation will be launched to find out what caused the fires and repairs will also be carried out.

The spokesman said: "As soon as the ship arrives in Kristiansand we will have technicians on board to find out what caused this damage and to give an estimate of how long it will take to repair it."

Once at Kristiansand, all passengers will be taken off the ship and DFDS pledged to ensure they all reached their destinations.

Mark Clark, a spokesman for the MCA, said: "She's travelling at about eight knots and the Master of the ship says she doesn't need an escort so all stand-by vessels and RAF helicopters have been stood down.

"It's 230 nautical miles from where she was to Kristiansand. It's a calm sea area that she's going through. The passengers seem to be in good spirits."

DFDS Seaways has one of the largest fleets in northern Europe.

The Princess of Scandinavia, which can carry 350 vehicles, was built in 1976 and refurbished in 1991, it is 184 metres long and weighs 22,528 tonnes.

It has a sister ship, the Prince of Scandinavia.

A spokeswoman said that it was a "high quality" vessel, adding: "All the crew are fully versed in health and safety procedures."

John Crummie, the company's UK managing director was in contact with the head office in Copenhagen about developments, she added.