Hot and tired passengers disembarking from a disabled cruise ship Thursday in the Seychelles said they had prepared to abandon ship when fire broke out in the engine room three days ago, causing smoke to billow from the vessel that was suddenly adrift in waters prowled by pirates.
Life boats were lowered, passengers said. Austrian Thomas Foaller said some passengers began to panic. Couples that were separated were calling out to each other, he said.
Among them were American couple Gordon and Eleanor Bradwell of Athens, Ga. They were separated when Eleanor went to the couple's room to get a life vest. A crew member had handed the 72-year-old Gordon his own as dark smoke rose from the ship.
"Those were the worst moments," said Gordon.
But the fire that broke out Monday was brought under control and the more than 1,000 passengers and crew wound up staying aboard the Costa Allegra, which suddenly had no engine power, no air conditioning and no running water for showers or toilets.
Eleanor Bradwell said that the initial response to the alarm seemed to be disorganized but overall she and her husband felt the shipping line had handled the emergency well.
"It could have been worse than it was," said Gordon. "It could have been disastrous ... we're here, we're alive."
The couple ate cold sandwiches for three days and moved their bedding onto the deck to escape the stifling heat after the fire left the Costa Allegra without power.
"The toilets were running over, there was no electricity. It was very hot," said Eleanor.
Foaller, the Austrian, said after the fire was contained the situation was fairly calm, if not comfortable.
"It was not dramatic. It was quiet. After (the fire was out) it was just boring," he said.
The fire came only six weeks after the Costa Concordia, owned by the same company, hit a reef and capsized off Italy, killing 25 people and leaving seven missing and presumed dead.
"I know it was bad luck for these guys but they are doing the best they can," Albert said. "They have a lot of image building to do right now but I've seen a very professional team."
The crew of the Costa Allegra formed up and clapped as passengers disembarked and were hustled to buses for onward travel. A dozen crew members lined up at two pay phones to call their families. One crew member used a reporters' phone to call India and check on his 8-year-old daughter.
The Seychelles Red Cross set up tents to assist any passengers needing medical help and embassy and consular officials were at the port to receive their citizens. Tour operators lined up dozens of buses to take passengers to either the airport or a Seychelles resort.
"The focus of the operation is to get them a warm meal and a shower," said Guillaume Albert, head of Creole Travel Service. "I think the happy ending is the people coming off the boat."
The average age of passengers onboard the ship is 55 years, he said.
A Seychelles official suggested on Wednesday that the journey may also have taken longer because the French fishing vessel towing the cruise ship had refused to give way to two faster tugs sent by the Seychelles. Although assistance to people at sea is free, assistance to ships is often paid.
On Thursday, Lt. Col. Michael Rosette, the deputy chief of staff of the military, said the tug boats were more appropriate than the fishing vessel but that the decision not to switch towing vessels was up to the cruise line company.
The Allegra, whose Italian name means "merry," or "happy," left northern Madagascar, off Africa's southeast coast, on Saturday. The liner was carrying 413 crew members and 627 passengers, including 212 Italians, 31 Britons and eight Americans.
About 375 people are taking advantage of the company's offer of a free 15-day vacation in the Seychelles, including the Bradwells. They will also be reimbursed for the $8,000 they spent on the cruise.
"The fact we have a carnival on, the weather is great, and the fact they want to continue their holidays is great for them and great for us," said Srdjana Janosevic, spokeswoman for the president of the Seychelles. "It means this potentially tragic situation has a happy ending."
The Seychelles is a chain of white-sand resort islands with a population of just 87,000. It depends on tourism for most of its revenues and is just recovering from a drop in visitors in 2009 because of the threat of pirate attacks. There were no reports of pirates approaching the stricken Costa Allegra or even being seen.
As passengers continued to disembark, Gordon Bradwell used a reporter's phone to call his daughter in the U.S.
"Karen, can you hear me?" he asked. "We wanted to let you know that everything is OK."