Freighter Catches Fire Off Spain; 23 of Crew Killed

From Times Wire Services

Fire broke out Saturday on a Panamanian-registered freighter off northwest Spain, and 23 sailors died, coast guard officials said.

Most of the seamen apparently died of exposure after leaping into rough and icy seas, officials said.

Eight survivors from the 31-man crew of the freighter Cason were plucked from the Atlantic Ocean by coast guard and navy helicopters and by ships passing in the vicinity 23 miles off Cape Finisterre, officials said.

The coast guard said the body of one crew member who had been missing was recovered from the sea by a British ship.

Storms and heavy seas hampered efforts to secure towlines and rescue those adrift. The coast guard said that at least two tugs from the nearby port of Vigo were trying to extinguish the fire aboard the freighter.

The coast guard said 29 of the crew were citizens of China and the other two came from Hong Kong. The ship is owned by a Hong Kong-based firm.

The ship caught fire off Spain's rocky "Coast of Death," which gets its name from the high number of shipwrecks in the area, particularly during the winter, when seas are heavy and visibility is poor.

The 9,191-ton Cason was steaming from Rotterdam, the Netherlands, to Hong Kong when the fire broke out, shipping sources in La Coruna said.

A Spanish navy spokesman said the fire began about 5 a.m., after which the captain sent a distress call. "The fire spread very rapidly and the crew abandoned ship, but some were caught in the flames," he said.

Officials said that one of the survivors, engine chief Chiu Sing Man, told them that the captain of the Cason, who was among those who perished, never told him what cargo the ship was carrying. But the officials said that Chiu believed it was carrying chemical products.

Other survivors told officials the fire spread very fast and occurred after a explosion.

A spokeswoman at a hospital in La Coruna said that 15 of the 23 victims, including one woman, had not suffered burns. "It seems that all of the victims died from the icy water," she said.

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