Caribbean Fantasy: Fire erupts, cruise ship evacuated off Puerto Rico
Published Wednesday, August 17, 2016 10:04AM EDT Last Updated Wednesday, August 17, 2016 4:59PM EDT
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- More than 500 passengers and crew evacuated from a burning ship about a mile off Puerto Rico's north coast Wednesday, and many required medical care, though there were no reported fatalities or life-threatening injuries.
The fire continued to burn aboard the Caribbean Fantasy, a combination cruise and ferry ship, as U.S. Coast Guard boats brought passengers into San Juan's harbour while helicopters whirred overheard. Other agencies and even private vessels joined in the effort before firefighters were ordered to abandon the ship.
"The boat's systems have collapsed. It's not safe anymore to work inside the boat," said Angel Crespo, director of Puerto Rico's Emergency Management Agency.
The Coast Guard said all passengers and crew were evacuated. Federal authorities were interviewing the captain, Crespo said.
The mostly Dominican passengers included dozens of school-age athletes headed to competitions in Puerto Rico, including a 22-member cycling team, a girls' volleyball team and a boys' baseball team. The ship runs several times weekly between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
The fire apparently had been burning for some time before the alarm was sounded.
Gyno Funes told The Associated Press that he was one of two mechanics in the control room when a hose carrying fuel burst open and caught fire.
"We were trying to extinguish it for two hours, but couldn't," the other mechanic, Marlon Doblado, said after the two reached shore.
Dominican passenger Maria Prensa said she was collecting her luggage when she smelled smoke. "I asked and they told me it was nothing, that it was under control," she said.
Officials with American Cruise Ferries, which operates the Panamanian-flagged ship built in 1989, did not return messages for comment about the fire.
A ProPublica investigation found that the U.S. Coast Guard had discovered 107 deficiencies during 61 inspections of the ship since 2010. The most recent inspections found no major faults, but a January 2015 inspection stated that oil fuel lines should be screened or protected in some way to avoid any spray or leakage onto ignition sources.
Crespo said 105 people were treated at the scene, mostly for heat stroke, shock and dehydration, and 24 others had been hospitalized. Among these were three women who dislocated their ankles and a man who broke his leg while going down the emergency slide, he said. None of the injuries are serious, and everyone is expected to recover, he said.
On the docks, several dozen people were carried in on stretchers, one of which held a man hooked to an IV line who was cradling a tiny bawling baby clad only in a diaper.
The injured were followed by a small group of children who held hands as they disembarked from Coast Guard boats.
Passengers found to be in good health were loaded onto city buses to be taken to the ship's original destination, where they went through customs.
They included Fiordalise Pitchard, who travelled to Puerto Rico on vacation.
"I feel nervous," she said, her hands trembling. "I was in the restaurant when I saw the smoke. I'm giving all the glory to the Lord today."
The fire erupted in the engine room and was spreading to the rest of the ship, Miami-based Coast Guard spokeswoman Marilyn Fajardo said by phone.
Anguished relatives of passengers, including Hilda Pereira, pushed their way onto the scene. Her daughter, whom she has not seen for 14 years, was aboard the ship.
Pereira said she was at the beauty salon when her sister called to notify her. "She said, 'You need to be strong.' The ferry has caught on fire."