More than 1,000 passengers on a stricken Italian cruise ship from the same fleet as the tragedy-struck Costa Concordia were being towed to safety yesterday, but would not reach landfall for another 24 hours.
Fire broke out in the engine room of the Costa Allegra on Monday, stalling the vessel in the choppy waters of the Indian Ocean where Somali pirates have in the past attacked and captured foreign ships.
A French fishing boat started towing the cruise ship to the tiny island of Desroches, while two tug boats from the coast guards were expected to reach the vessel later yesterday, the Seychelles Coast Guard said.
“The Seychelles Coast Guard can confirm that a French purse seiner vessel [a trawler] reached the location of the Costa Allegra last night and is towing the vessel towards Desroches island,” it said in a statement.
It was not clear how far the boat was from Desroches, but Seychelles presidential spokeswoman Srdjana Janosevic said the coast guards were not expecting its arrival at the remote island “ until tomorrow [Wednesday].”
Emergency crews onboard managed to extinguish the fire after a few hours and nobody was injured, but the stranded liner was forced to make a mayday call seeking assistance from nearby vessels in the dangerous ocean seas.
Passengers were all moved onto the ship’s outer decks to ensure an easier evacuation if needed, and Indian naval aircraft flying overhead took photographs showing passengers crowded around the cruise ship’s swimming pool.
A Seychelles helicopter delivered food and satellite phones to the ship, cruise operator Costa Crociere said.
Officials from Costa Crociere have said that all 636 passengers and 413 crew members were in good health and confirmed the boat was being towed to Desroches.
“Guests onboard are continuously informed and assisted by the captain and the staff onboard, a cold breakfast was served this morning,” the company said in a statement.
The Costa Allegra is from the same fleet as the much larger Costa Concordia, which crashed into an Italian island last month, in a tragedy that claimed 32 lives.
The cruise ship’s passengers and crew are from 25 countries, including 135 Italians, among them nine marines to guard against pirate attacks, 127 French, 97 Austrians and 90 Swiss, as well as nationals from Britain, Germany, Mauritius, Russia, Slovenia and Spain.
The passengers are expected to disembark on Desroches before traveling 230km southwest to Mahe, the main island in the archipelago.
Desroches, a tiny outcrop of land known for its white sandy beaches and dense lush forests of coconut palms and surrounded by coral reefs, is just about 15km in circumference and hosts an exclusive luxury resort.
Resort manager Mark Leslie said they were in close contact with the authorities and that they expected the passengers to arrive sometime “after lunch on Wednesday.”
“We will be able to accommodate around 200 guests, if they want to stay,” Leslie said. “The other ones will be airlifted to Mahe.”
However, people will need to be transported in several planes since the short airstrip can handle only small aircraft with a maximum capacity of 25 people per plane, Leslie added.
“We are in contact with the agent of the ship and we are making arrangements to transport the passengers and crew by air to the island of Mahe,” Seychelles Tourism Board director Alain St Ange said.