It was 10.20pm New York time on Friday, 3.20 yesterday morning in London, when the Clyde-built QE2 hit what was described as an 'uncharted object' off Cape Cod and the coast of Massachusetts. There was 'a tremendous vibration', the whole ship shook violently but there was no panic. The mighty cruise liner, it seems, had hit an invisible sandbar, one big enough to run the 13-deck liner aground for the first time in her colourful 25 years.
None of the 1,800 passengers or 1,000 crew were hurt and the vessel was refloated in deep water and anchored within hours. But as the extent of the damage became clear during daylight hours yesterday, it was apparent that the incident could have ended in tragedy. There was considerable mystery as to why the US pilot at the helm had hit an underwater ledge, presumably outside the shipping channel he should have been taking between Martha's Vineyard and New York.
US Coastguard officials boarded the vessel soon after the accident to interview the pilot and the ship's Captain Robin Woodall, who was said to have been on the bridge at the time.
The cruise liner was taking in water at the rate of an inch an hour last night but in no danger of sinking, a US coastguard spokesman said. Oil from a leaking tank was seen bubbling in the surrounding sea off Cuttyhunk Island and it was considered prudent to evacuate the passengers last night by ferry to New Bedford on the mainland.
Divers reported one-third of the liner's hull damaged after daylight inspection, making the accident far worse than had at first been thought during the night hours.
US coastguard aircraft circled the area to watch for oil spills and coastguard cutters spread out 'booms' in the sea to keep any spill from spreading. Cunard, the ship's owners, and the coastguard said there appeared to be no immediate threat to the vessel from the fuel leak.
An initial plan to take the passengers to Newport, Rhode Island, on board the QE2 herself was abandoned as the extent of the damage became apparent. Instead, a large passenger ferry was sent from New Bedford with a makeshift bridge to transfer them from the liner. They were due to disembark in New Bedford before dark last night. 'Four tanks on the ship were holed or damaged. Three are ballast tanks and one an empty fuel tank,' according to the Coastguard spokesman.
The QE2, launched by the Queen on Clydeside 25 years ago next month, had just completed a cruise to Bermuda but was returning to New York from a day trip to Martha's Vineyard when she ran aground. She was due to sail to Southampton this week, according to Cunard.
Among the passengers was the Tory MP for Tynemouth, Neville Trotter, on holiday with his wife Caroline and six- year-old daughter Sophie. 'There is no panic whatsoever. Everyone is very cool and calm,' he said by ship-to- shore radio soon after the unforeseen stopover 12 miles off the US mainland. 'The captain has told us that the ship hit something underwater, as yet we don't know what. The ship cleared that and we are now at anchor.
'Apart from the fact that it is now three in the morning and obviously a lot of people are awake, you would not know anything was amiss. The sea is very peaceful, no swell.'
'It was around 10pm and we were eating dinner,' said another passenger, Nat Welch, of Lincoln, Massachusetts. 'The whole ship started to shake quite violently. There was no panic. One of the big questions was, will they keep the casinos open, are we three miles off the US limits?'
The QE2's predecessor, the Queen Elizabeth, launched in 1938, was destroyed by fire in Hong Kong harbour 20 years ago. The same year, after a bomb threat, the QE2 had to be checked for explosives by commandos landing by parachute. A year later, the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, was said to have threatened to send submarines to sink her in the Mediterranean.
But yesterday's excitement was the most the luxury liner had seen since 1982. Then, she and 650 of her crew volunteered for the Falklands war, ferrying 3,000 infantrymen to the South Atlantic, with machine-guns set up on either side of her bridge.
The glamorous vessel, the pride of Clydeside shipyard workers in the Sixties and possibly the last in a long line of majestic cruise liners, was last immersed in controversy in 1991. That was when Cunard replaced her last remaining British crewmen - 130 of them - with foreign seamen.