Fire Kills 5, Injures 76 on Alaska Cruise

From Associated Press

Fire broke out Saturday morning aboard a cruise ship in Alaska's Inside Passage, killing five crew members and injuring 76 people, the Coast Guard said.

"People were out in the hallway yelling, 'Fire! Fire! Fire!' " said passenger Marty Weintraub of San Francisco, who was rousted out of bed by the shouts and fire alarms. "As soon as I opened my cabin door, the smoke just poured in."

Passenger Judy Hill of Santa Rosa, Calif., leaped out of bed, grabbed her shoes, life jacket and hat, "and just made a break for it."

The cruise was canceled, and by late afternoon, all the passengers had been moved from the ship and taken by bus to a temporary shelter until flights home could be arranged.

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The fire apparently began in the laundry room aboard the Universe Explorer and was reported at 3:11 a.m., said Coast Guard Lt. John Fitzgerald. The 617-foot ship was about two hours from Juneau at the time, near Admiralty Island, west of the capital city, he said.

The five crew members had berths near the laundry room, Fire Chief Charles Lundfelt said. Their names were not immediately available.

It was tough trying to battle the blaze in a confined area, Lundfelt said at a news conference.

"It's like fighting a basement fire,' he said. "Normally with a house fire, you can vent the heat or the smoke out an open window or cut a hole in the roof."

Fitzgerald said the fire was extinguished with help from a Coast Guard team placed aboard the ship but that it restarted shortly after 8 a.m. That flare-up was put out about an hour later, he said.

The ship was never in any danger of sinking, Fitzgerald said. The fire's cause was not immediately known.

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The Universe Explorer passed its quarterly fire inspection last week, said Lt. Dennis O'Mara of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office in Juneau.

There were no visible signs of a fire from outside the ship, though some rescue workers carried singed life buoys off the vessel.

The Coast Guard dispatched two cutters, a utility boat and a helicopter to aid the ship.

The ship arrived at Auke Bay, a harbor about 10 miles north of Juneau, shortly after 9 a.m. The injured, 63 crew members and 13 passengers, were taken to a hospital. Most suffered from smoke inhalation and anxiety, and two reported heart attack symptoms, authorities said.

The ship, owned by Commodore Cruise Lines, had 730 passengers and 280 crew members, Fitzgerald said. It left Vancouver, Canada, on Tuesday for a weeklong cruise. It last departed Juneau overnight and was on its way to Glacier Bay, 60 miles northwest.

The ship is fully operational, but "for the safety and comfort of the passengers, we just decided to terminate the cruise and fly everybody home," said Dennis Myrick, vice president of World Explorer Cruises Inc., the San Francisco-based company that leased the vessel.

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Passengers would be compensated for the rest of the trip, Myrick said.

The ship will remain at Auke Bay for at least another day before returning to Vancouver. It should be ready to begin another weeklong cruise next Tuesday, Myrick said.

The Universe Explorer was built in 1953 as a cargo vessel. A few years later it was outfitted as a passenger ship. In 1971, Hong Kong shipping tycoon C.Y. Tung bought the vessel and in 1977 the ship started summer cruises to Alaska.

Saturday's cruise ship fire was the third on Inside Passage waters during the past year.

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