Passengers on sinking cruise ship tell of panic, terror and incompetence

John Davison,Sarah Strickland
Friday 21 May 1999 23:02 BST

BRITISH HOLIDAY makers last night told of terror and incompetence on board a cruise ship after it caught fire and all 1,104 passengers and crew had to take to the lifeboats. The crew of the Singapore-owned Sun Vista was said to have panicked during the evacuation, and passengers, including 146 Britons, had to spend up to eight hours in the open boats before being rescued.

No one was killed or even injured seriously, but local marine officials conceded that all had been "very, very lucky". Questions now surround why engine room crew failed to put out an electrical fire which burned for hours before passengers were alerted, and why rescue ships were not called earlier.

Derek Langton was enjoying free beer and a barbecue on the top deck of the ship when he realised it was listing and smoke was pouring from the stern. "All the lights went out a lot earlier but they told us there wasn't a problem," said Mr Langton, 65, from Salford. "They must have known then something was wrong but we were all downing these beers - they were shelling them out. I couldn't believe it was happening."

The fire, in the main engine room switchboard, was first reported at 3.15pm local time, but it was more than three hours before a distress signal was sent and a further hour before passengers were taken off in 18 lifeboats and four life rafts. Some floated for hours awaiting rescue ships. TheBritish holidaymakers formed the largest group among passengers from 20 countries.

Heat from the fire is believed to have buckled plates below the water line, allowing the sea to rush in.

The ship capsized and sank in the early hours.

Thomas Bonnard, 62, fromGuisborough, Cleveland, said the crew "did not seem to know what they were doing" as passengers pulled on lifejackets and scrambled into lifeboats. "It was a complete nightmare," he said. "There were some problems getting the lifeboats off. It took about 10 minutes to lower one end of our boat. Nobody seemed to want to take charge. Luckily there was an Australian in our boat who seemed to know what he was doing."

As the investigation into what happened got under way yesterday, some also wondered what would have happened if the ship had been full. Low season in the Far East meant that little more than a third of the capacity 1,400 berths on the ship were occupied.

Peter Andrews, 76, from Rayleigh, Essex, who was on the cruise to visit his wartime naval station at Singapore, said he had huddled for eight hours on a lifeboat before being taken on board by a cargo vessel.

"My lifeboat was overloaded, there were 76 people in when the capacity was 45, and the person responsible for it didn't seem to be very confident," he said. "We had a job to control the boat. We started the engine and it cut out. We started it again and it still didn't last long. Eventually we got the oars out but couldn't make much progress."

Greg Haywood, 30, from Australia, spoke of the reaction when the order came to leave everything behind and abandon ship. "We were singing the Celine Dion song My Heart Will Go On from the film Titanic, trying to keep everyone's spirits up," he said.

A spokesman for the Malaysian Marine Rescue and Co-ordination Centre said the first distress signal was sent at about 6.30pm on Thursday local time (11.30am BST) and the ship sank around seven hours later. All the rescued passengers were taken to Penang,where at least 16 were admitted to hospital with minor injuries. Many were then flown by special charter flights to Singapore, where the cruise had started, before being sent home. Most arrived back on land in just the clothes they stood up in. Gifts and valuables had all been left on the stricken ship, with passengers banned from returning to their cabins because of the power-cut on board.

Mr Langton, now safe in a hotel in Penang, gave a graphic account of his experiences. "It was frightening; one lady was in a terrible state but on the whole, people didn't panic," he said. "We were in the lifeboats for five or six hours with nothing to eat or drink. There were about 40 of us and we tried to sing but failed. People were throwing up all over the shop. I took my life-jacket off in the end because it was so big and hot. I thought `if I'm going to die I'll die without this thing on'."

People became more scared as it got darker, before they were eventually picked up by a Russian container ship.

One Canadian passenger had a heart attack as they were waiting to disembark, but he survived. Mr Langton also had to be taken to hospital because he suffers from a heart murmur, but was soon released. "It certainly was a holiday to remember," he added. "I don't think I'll be going on another cruise in a hurry.

"When we got on the ship they played the tune from Titanic but I never dreamed in a million years it would sink."

As a Manchester United supporter he said he would stay in Penang to watch today's FA Cup final on television and go home on Monday. Some 30 other British passengers have chosen to stay on and complete their Far East holidays.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in