More than a 1,000 people, including 100 Britons, were involved in yet another high seas drama yesterday as a cruise ship was disabled and left to drift south of the Philippines after a fire on board. This is the latest mishap to befall an industry that has suffered a series of high-profile blows since mid-January, when the Costa Concordia capsized off the coast of Italy with the loss of more than 30 lives.
Further calamities followed in February when, during one weekend, three US cruise liners were forced back to port by outbreaks of the norovirus stomach bug. In the same month, a fire on the Costra Allegra left that ship without power and adrift for three days in the Indian Ocean in waters known to be prowled by pirates. And just two days ago, a Carnival Corp cruise ship was ordered to be held in a Texas port by a US judge in a $10m (£6.2m) lawsuit filed by the family of a German tourist who died aboard the Concordia.
In yesterday's incident, the luxury Azamara Quest had been on its way to Sandakan, in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah, when an engine room fire knocked out its power and left it adrift on the South China Sea.
The cruise liner had left Hong Kong on Monday for what was supposed to be a 17-day South-east Asian cruise. It was scheduled to make several stops in Indonesia, before arriving in Singapore on 12 April.
The ship had left Manila following a port stop on Thursday and was at sea when the fire broke out on Friday night. Flames engulfed one of the ship's engine rooms but were quickly extinguished. Five of the 411 crew members suffered smoke inhalation during the incident; one suffered prolonged heat and smoke exposure and was in a serious condition, said senior physician, Oliver Gilles.
But all 590 passengers – 100 of whom are British and one from Ireland – escaped unharmed. The stricken Azamara was eventually reached by rescue vessels yesterday afternoon. Engineers were able to restore electricity to re-establish the air conditioning, running water, plumbing, refrigeration and cooking facilities. Algier Ricafrente, a spokesman for the Philippines coastguard, said the engines had been repaired, power restored, and the ship had begun moving slowly towards Sandakan.
Among the British passengers on board were the parents of Sarah Robinson, 38, from Manchester. She received a call from her 75-year-old father and mother, 65, the morning after the accident assuring her they were unhurt. Ms Robinson said: "Dad came on the phone and he said 'Everything is fine. We're adrift in the South China Sea and we're not sure when we'll be back. We were having a gin and tonic in the cabin before dinner when the lights went out then a voice came over the Tannoy to say there'd been a fire but it was under control'.
"Then my mum came on the phone and said the crew had been amazing and were looking after them well."
Ms Robinson said the couple had already been offered a full refund and another holiday free of charge from Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, the firm that owns the Azamara. The company said in a statement: "On Friday, 30 March, at approximately 8.19pm ship time, Azamara Quest experienced a fire in the engine room. The fire was contained to the engine room and was quickly extinguished. However, in an abundance of caution, the captain initially mustered all guests at their assembly stations. The ship is currently running on generator power until full power can be restored to the engine room."
Royal Caribbean Cruises confirmed that the rest of the ship's voyage would be cancelled.