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Parties kept spirits high on blaze-hit cruise ship

    The Azamara Quest tied up at the dock on arrival at the port in Sandakan, Malaysia, Sunday. The Azamara Quest carrying 590 passengers and 411 crew, was left a drift for 24 hours after a fire broke out in one of the ships engine rooms on Friday night.
    In this photo taken Saturday, March 31, 2012 and released Sunday, April 1, 2012 by the Philippine Air Force, the stricken cruise ship Azamara Quest is seen in Sulu sea, southern Philippines. The cruise ship with 1,000 people on board that had drifted for 24 hours after being disabled by a fire was headed toward Malaysia following repairs and was expected to reach shore Sunday, the ship's company said.

SANDAKAN, Malaysia >> The smell of smoke spread fear on the cruise ship Azamara Quest, whose passengers put on life vests and gathered for roll call thinking of a deadly capsizing of another luxury vessel.

But for most of the 48 hours it took the fire-damaged ship to lumber into a Malaysian port, they were partying more than panicking.

Passengers said the hardworking crew who quickly put out an engine-room fire Friday night kept their spirits buoyant, even as they suffered without air conditioning in sweltering heat. They enjoyed barbecues on the deck and free drinks.

After the ship carrying 1,000 people reached land, its passengers — including many retired vacationers from North America and Europe — voiced relief Monday that their experience hadn’t been as harrowing as what happened to other accident-hit cruise liners this year.

"Everybody was joyous that they were alive," said Diane Becker Krasnick of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. She was celebrating her 40th wedding anniversary with her husband, Mark.

"It was unfortunate, but the crew was totally, utterly amazing, taking care of us, making sure we were safe, pulling double duty," Krasnick said. "I would still highly recommend the Azamara."

The ship’s tribulations started a day after it wrapped up a port call in Manila during a 17-day Southeast Asian cruise. Flames engulfed one of its engine rooms Friday night, injuring five crew members who suffered smoke inhalation.

Dorothy Wood of Virginia Beach, Virginia, said she was having soup at a dining hall when everyone noticed smoke.

"I was petrified. I had to cover my face with a napkin and go through the smoke," the 74-year-old said at a hotel in Sandakan, where the Azamara Quest docked late Sunday.

"I never thought I would be afraid to die, but I was very much afraid. But I didn’t tell anyone," she said, laughing. She praised Finnish captain Leif Karlsson and his crew, saying "there was such a sense of family with the passengers."

Many passengers said they remained calm while donning life vests and heading to the Azamara Quest’s casino and cabaret lounge for a roll call. They were informed there had been an electrical fire, but it was immediately extinguished.

Ship engineers toiled throughout the next day, restoring electricity, running water and plumbing within hours before finally re-establishing propulsion Saturday night.

The Philippine coast guard sent a vessel to escort the Azamara Quest through the Sulu Sea before Malaysian coast guard boats accompanied it to its next scheduled stop in Sandakan.

The initial hours made some think of the Costa Concordia, which capsized off the coast of Italy in January, killing 32 people, and the Costa Allegra, where a fire left that ship without power and adrift in waters known to be prowled by pirates in the Indian Ocean for three days.

When it became clear that things were under control, the Azamara Quest’s passengers sought to stay upbeat, despite the ship’s inability to restore air conditioning. Many of the 11-deck vessel’s entertainment facilities, which include a spa and shopping boutiques, were also shut, passengers said.

"People didn’t complain. The captain was phenomenal," said Dorothy Irvine, a former school principal from Toronto.

Margaret Whawell of Melbourne, Australia, said her husband slept on the deck because their room was stiflingly hot, but they enjoyed two nights of barbecue dinners also on the deck once the ship started moving again Saturday night.

"There were lots of salads and we had barbecued chicken, pork, steak and fish. There were free drinks, a band playing and singing. They made it a party time," Whawell said.

The ship’s operator, Azamara Club Cruises, has said it will give the passengers full refunds and certificates for future cruises. Azamara is part of Miami, Florida-based Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.

On Monday, some passengers remained on the ship, but many were at hotels in Sandakan. Some also went sightseeing elsewhere in Sabah state, taking a "Wild Man of Borneo" tour to view orangutans. The rest of their cruise — which was to include stops in Indonesia before ending in Singapore on April 12 — has been scrapped.

The vessel was carrying 590 passengers and 411 crew members. Over one-third, or 201, of the passengers were American, according to lists provided by the ship’s captain to the Philippine coast guard.

Passengers from 25 countries also included 98 from Britain, 89 from Australia, 45 from Canada and 39 from Germany. The crew included 119 Filipinos, 58 Indians and 50 Indonesians.

Consular officials from the U.S., Britain, Canada and other countries traveled to Sabah to provide assistance. Some passengers were expected to fly home or to other holiday destinations through Singapore by Tuesday.

Gan Ping Sin, Sandakan’s marine police commander, said he was informed the ship might be sent to Singapore for repair.

Journalists were prevented from entering the port due to the ship operator’s instructions. An AP team that took a speedboat near the area saw crew members cleaning cabins Monday.


Associated Press writer Sean Yoong in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, contributed to this report.

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