MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica – A fire apparently started by a cigarette broke out aboard a cruise ship early Thursday as it sailed through the moonlit Caribbean, injuring 11 people and scorching about 100 rooms. One elderly American passenger died from a heart attack, the cruise ship company said.
The Star Princess, carrying 2,690 passengers and 1,123 crew members, bore evidence of the nighttime drama as it pulled into Montego Bay's port. About 85 exterior cabins were blackened from the fire, a stark contrast to the otherwise gleaming white exterior of the ship. Metal was twisted, evidence of the heat of the blaze.
"We consider ourselves very lucky," Klemens Fass, of Toronto, Canada, told The Associated Press after he and his wife were evacuated with other some passengers. "When we got out of our stateroom ... there was someone lying in the hallway passed out. He was being attended to but it was very, very scary."
A smoldering cigarette is suspected as the cause of the blaze, said Horace Peterkin, president of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association, who toured the ship after it docked here.
Passengers grabbed life jackets and raced to "muster stations" after the fire started about 3 a.m., said Julie Benson, spokeswoman for Princess Cruises, which is owned by Miami-based Carnival Corp. The crew put out the fire, then did a cabin-by-cabin search to check for victims and make sure everyone else was safe, she said.
Richard Liffidge, 75, of Georgia, collapsed and died on deck, said Karl Angell, communications director for the Jamaican police. Benson said the passenger died after suffering cardiac arrest. But Peterkin said an autopsy would be performed to determine the cause of death.
Liffidge's wife was taken to a hospital in Montego Bay, Angell said. There was no immediate word on what she was being treated for or her condition.
A company statement said two passengers suffered "significant smoke inhalation injuries" and nine others had "minor complications."
Benson said the company has reached no conclusions about the cause of the blaze.
She said about 100 cabins were affected by the fire, though Peterkin put the number at around 150.
The Star Princess was sailing from Grand Cayman to Jamaica when the blaze started. Reportedly built at a cost of over $430 million, it has four swimming pools, a half-dozen restaurants and dining rooms, a casino, two theaters, and several nightclubs. It stretches about three football fields long.
Zach Bramlage, 19, of Columbus, Ohio, was having a late-night meal when word spread that there was a fire.
"Some people just ran in where we were eating and told us the ship is on fire and we got our life vests real quick and headed downstairs," Bramlage said. "I was pretty scared initially but the captain came over the (intercom) and told us everything was going to be all right."
Hours after the ship arrived in Montego Bay before noon, passengers boarded buses that took them to hotels in the nearby resort towns of Negril and Ocho Rios. Other passengers remained on board.
The U.S. Coast Guard dispatched investigators and fire engineers to help determine the fire's cause and whether the ship was seaworthy, Coast Guard Petty Officer James Judge said in Miami. Teams were expected to arrive Thursday afternoon.
"Our No. 1 concern right now is safety," Judge said.
The ship was not seriously damaged and would sail back to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Friday, Peterkin said. There was no immediate confirmation from officials at the cruise line.
The Star Princess sailed from Fort Lauderdale on March 19.