Costa braces for PR storm as passengers adrift for days with no power prepare to tell of ordeal

 

Six hundred passengers from the Costa Allegra were told they will be flown back to Europe later today after spending three sweltering tropical nights aboard the crippled luxury cruise liner.

Costa Cruises, the operator, said it had also managed to find a further 400 beds to accommodate the new arrivals when they arrived in the Seychelles.

The ship has been without power since Monday when a fire in the engine room knocked out electricity and air conditioning, forcing 1,000 passengers and crew to seek refuge from the soaring temperatures on deck. They have been washing in mineral water and cooling themselves in the breeze generated by the slow forward motion of the ship.

Three flights are expected to take off from the island of Mahe in the Indian Ocean archipelago later today, bound for Rome and other destinations.

Investigators will begin work finding the cause of the blaze that left the ship drifting in potentially hostile waters renowned for Somali pirates.

Costa, the Italian owner of the Allegra, which is part of the American cruising giant Carnival, is now faced with restoring its tarnished reputation in the lucrative marketplace, while handling a potentially explosive new PR crisis as passengers, including 31 Britons, begin to recount their ordeal for the first time to a media contingent already assembling in Port Victoria.

Last month, the company's Costa Concordia capsized after hitting rocks off the Italian coast with the loss of 32 lives. The Concordia's captain, Francesco Schettino, is being investigated for manslaughter and abandoning his ship.

Costa insisted that conditions on board the 29,000-tonne Allegra have been "regular". The lights, refrigeration and cooking facilities failed so a helicopter has been dropping comfort supplies, including torches, fresh food such as fruit and slices of cheese, and water. A small generator delivered by a passing naval ship had helped alleviate some communications problems, although it was insufficient to restore full power.

The ship is expected to dock today, although the arrival time has been repeatedly put back. It is being pulled at six knots by a French tuna vessel. Two tugs were unable to join the rescue effort.

The influx of 1,000 weary travellers threatened to overwhelm the tiny island, which is already full of guests preparing to celebrate a festival weekend. Gilbert Faure, the chief executive of the Seychelles Civil Aviation Authority, said the first plane is tentatively scheduled to leave later today.

"It could all depend because they have been at sea for three days," he said. "They may want to take a shower, we are not sure. I can assure you that we are doing our best to ensure that they have a nice few hours in the Seychelles."

The passengers include 127 French tourists, 126 Italians, 38 Germans, 13 Canadians and eight Americans.

Accidents will happen, says wreck captain

The 1,000 passengers languishing on board the Costa Allegra are unlikely to be as relaxed about their predicament as the captain of its ill-fated sister ship, the Costa Concordia, appears to be. Captain Francesco Schettino, who is currently under house arrest at his home near Naples, gave his verdict on the Allegra's plight to reporters yesterday, saying: "These accidents happen".

Captain Schettino is suspected of abandoning ship and manslaughter after 25 passengers died when the Concordia struck rocks on the Italian island of Giglio on 13 January.

He faces up to 15 years in jail if convicted.

Jenny Stevens

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