Achille Lauro Survivors Praise Crew : Disaster: Cruise director’s efforts are hailed. Some of those rescued from the ship arrive in Djibouti and Kenya.

<i> From Times Wire Services</i>

Survivors from the Achille Lauro luxury liner, which caught fire and sank, said they owe their lives to the ship’s cruise director and her staff, who calmly shepherded passengers into groups for evacuation.

Fire broke out early Wednesday in the ship’s engine room, and the Achille Lauro sank 125 miles off the coast of Somalia after a final explosion ripped through its bow at dusk Friday. The ship had been on a cruise from Italy to South Africa.

Tour guides Renate Strumberger and Elfi Hettwer, speaking aboard the Gettysburg, a U.S. guided-missile cruiser, said Nadia Eckhard, the South African cruise director, was the heroine in the disaster.


“Nadia and her team, both South Africans and Britons, whose job really was to organize entertainment and everyday life for the passengers, is the real heroine of the fire,” Hettwer said.

“They organized the passengers into nationality groups so everyone would understand orders in their own language, and they’re the ones who really handled the evacuation,” said Hettwer, who is from Bamberg, Germany.

Other survivors who have arrived at the Red Sea port of Djibouti told of their miraculous escape from the inferno that engulfed the Italian liner.

“The most critical moment was putting the passengers into a lifeboat, and the ship behind us was burning,” said South African Christopher Hills, an entertainer aboard the vessel.

“All the paint was peeling off the wall, and we were struggling to get them in fast enough . . . and suddenly you could feel the heat right behind you. It was a very frightening moment.”

He said the crew helped passengers slide down ropes at the stern of the blazing ship. Some passengers fell into the sea, and crewmen dived in to save them. “There was a lot of confusion,” he said.

“Right away there was smoke everywhere, and the light dimmed,” said South African passenger Peter Lategan. “I ran through the corridors to find my wife, and it kept getting darker and darker.

“Doors were slamming everywhere--probably fireproof doors closing the ship into sections,” Lategan said. “That was awfully frightening.”

About 100 Achille Lauro crew members arrived Sunday in Mombasa, Kenya.

Four other ships carrying about 500 of the liner’s passengers and crew members were expected Sunday night, and those survivors would disembark today, shipping officials said.

The Italian coast guard reported that an elderly Dutchwoman died after being rescued from the ship. Evernentia Spiekermann, 74, was the third passenger from the ill-fated cruise to die.

Spiekermann apparently suffered an intestinal blockage aboard the SKS Spirit, one of 10 ships taking the more than 900 Achille Lauro passengers and crew to African shores, coast guard officials said.

Two other elderly passengers died in the incident. Arthur Morris of Britain was killed by a blow to the head as he tried to board a lifeboat, and Gerhard Szimke of Germany suffered a heart attack.

An elderly Dutchman remained unaccounted for in the accident.

The Achille Lauro made headlines in 1985 when Palestinian guerrillas hijacked it in the Mediterranean, killed Jewish American passenger Leon Klinghoffer and dumped his body overboard.