POSTED: 04:23 a.m. HST, Mar 01, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 11:35 a.m. HST, Mar 01, 2012
VICTORIA, Seychelles >> The worst moments for Gordon and Eleanor Bradwell came immediately after the alarm sounded. Eleanor rushed to their cabin to get a life vest. Gordon was pushed in another direction. The scent of smoke grew stronger aboard the disabled cruise ship. Then the lifeboats dropped.
The Athens, Ga., couple — married 50 years last June — couldn't find one another.
"Those were the worst moments," said Bradwell, a former alumni director at the University of Georgia.
The Costa Allegra docked in the Seychelles on Thursday, three days after a fire broke out in the ship's generator room, leaving passengers without working toilets, running water or air conditioning in a region of the Indian Ocean where pirates are known to prowl.
Cabin temperatures reached 100 to 110 degrees, forcing passengers to sleep on deck chairs.
"Things became very primitive," Bradwell said, a far cry from what the couple had expected when they embarked on the $8,000 multi-week cruise.
The blaze came just six weeks after another luxury liner, the Costa Concordia, capsized off Italy, leaving 32 people dead, a fact that was on many passengers' minds. Both ships were operated by Costa Crociere SpA, which is owned by Florida-based Carnival Corp.
When the ship's alarm sounded around 1 p.m. Monday, passengers knew it wasn't a drill. They had already had one, and knew that the short-short-long wail meant to prepare to disembark.
Passengers couldn't see the fire, but they could smell and see smoke. Crew members extinguished the blaze within an hour, but the alarmed continued to wail for two more hours.
Some passengers panicked, shouting out family members' names. It was two hours before the Bradwells were reunited.
Capt. Niccolo Alba told a news conference Thursday the emergency response went relatively smoothly.
The average age of the 627 passengers on board was 55, said Guillaume Albert, head of Creole Travel Service. Many of the older passengers in particular had trouble with the sweltering heat.
Back in Georgia, the Bradwell's daughter, Karen Bradwell Cobb, received two calls Monday from the cruise operator to update her on the ship's situation.
"Initially when I got the call it was very stressful and I teared up," she said. "But because my parents are such seasoned travelers I felt like they would be OK. The main concern for me and my brothers was the piracy issue."
The waters off East Africa are Somali pirate territory. The attacks crippled the Seychelles tourism industry after wary cruise companies stopped coming to the island paradise in 2009.
Cruises have since returned, and Costa Vice President Norbert Stiekema said Thursday that anti-piracy measures were in place on the Allegra, though he wouldn't detail what they were. A Seychelles official said earlier that armed guards were traveling on board.
Cobb said the cruise company called her with an update again on Tuesday. On Thursday, at around 2 a.m. Georgia time, she received a fourth call.
"Hey!" her father joyfully shouted into an Associated Press reporter's phone. "We wanted to let you know that everything is OK."
After the first hours of chaos, life settled down on the Allegra. But more bad news was to come. An emergency generator not involved in the fire failed, leaving the ship with only six hours of battery power.
That brought an end to any semblance of the good cruise life. There were no more hot meals, only cold sandwiches. The water used to extinguish the fire flooded the galley between the first and second decks. The toilets couldn't be flushed, blanketing the bathrooms in stench.
Cawan Finn summed up the bathroom situation using a British slang expression. "I haven't had a whoopsie for about four days now," the 65-year-old said.
Finn said it could have been worse. "We were just drifting. ... What if there had been a major storm?"
Tuesday and Wednesday brought little drama, said Thomas Faller, a 66-year-old Austrian doctor. "It was just boring," he said.
"The first moment I didn't believe it," Faller said of the initial alarm. "I had just started my lunch and I thought it wasn't real."
Stiekema, the Costa vice president, said the company had made the passengers an "extremely fair" compensation offer: A refund of the costs of the cruise, any related flights and any spending on board, plus an additional payment equal to the cost of the cruise and associated travel expenses.
Passengers were also given the chance to remain in the Seychelles for a free one- or two-week vacation, which the company said about 70 percent of guests had chosen to do. All passengers were to be flown home at company expense.
Guests not staying in the Seychelles were be flown to Paris, Rome, Milan, Vienna and Zurich, arriving Friday morning. Those passengers will also receive a voucher equivalent to the value of the Allegra trip, to be used on any Costa ship in the next 24 months.
"Costa is sincerely sorry for the discomfort caused to its passengers, but happy to have found them in good conditions," a company statement said.
After the Concordia's accident, the company saw bookings fall by 35 percent. They had just started to rise and may now take another hit. The Bradwells, for instance, said they were looking forward to their next cruise — but that it won't be with Costa.
Three Italian investigators were in the Seychelles to probe the cause of the fire. Company officials have said there is no reason to suspect foul play.
The Allegra left northern Madagascar, off Africa's southeast coast, on Saturday, carrying 413 crew members and 627 passengers, including 212 Italians, 31 Britons and eight Americans.
Most were staying on in the Seychelles, a chain of white-sand resort islands with a population of just 87,000, and island officials were thrilled to have them.
"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 Seychelles' president. "It means this potentially tragic situation has a happy ending."
The rescue — carried out by a French fishing vessel — was not without controversy. A Seychelles official told the AP the journey may have taken longer than necessary because the French vessel refused to give way to two faster Seychelles tugs. Although assistance to people at sea is free, assistance to ships is often paid.
During the slow ride into the Seychelles' main port, life on the cruise ship was mostly civil, Gordon Bradwell said, despite a few testy moments, "which you would expect because life was difficult."
He suggested that after resting a few days in the Seychelles, he and Eleanor may even form fond memories of their hardship cruise.
"I think if you were to interview any of these people, the foremost thought in their mind is, 'We're here, we're alive,'" Bradwell said. "If the fire had gotten out of control it could have been a disaster."