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Blast, Fire in Cruise Ship's Boiler Room Kill at Least 4

May 26, 2003|John-Thor Dahlburg and Anna M. Virtue | Times Staff Writers

MIAMI — A powerful boiler-room explosion rocked a venerable cruise ship at its moorings Sunday, blowing some of the Norway's crew into the water and igniting a fire onboard. At least four crew members died and about 20 were injured, eight critically, before the flames were doused, officials said.

The Norway had just docked at the end of a weeklong Caribbean cruise, and Miami port authorities said the vessel was carrying 2,135 passengers along with the 911 men and women of its crew. All of the passengers were safely evacuated and none was injured, authorities said.

The Norway's passengers were getting ready to disembark when the blast occurred.

Ken Hunt, 81, was in his cabin.

"I just heard a loud boom," he said. "I didn't pay attention at first; I thought we just hit the dock. But then the lights went out."

With the decks below plunged into darkness, Kathleen Ditty, 26, another passenger, said there was "a loudspeaker announcement for a stretcher crew to head to the boiler room."

The Norwegian Cruise Line ship, which began service as the glamorous ocean liner SS France in 1962, had entered port around 5 a.m. The explosion, which Miami-Dade police said was probably caused by a steam leak in the engine room, occurred about two hours later.

The concussion from the blast was so powerful that it propelled four crew members through an open cargo-bay door into the water, police said. The employees were fished back onboard with a rope ladder.

Within an hour, Miami-Dade firefighters managed to extinguish the flames, Coast Guard Petty Officer Anastasia Burns said.

Within three hours, the passengers and remaining crew members had been evacuated to shore.

"So far, it looks like it was just an accident," Burns said.

Hunt said the evacuation of passengers was smooth. "But when we got off the boat, it was chaos," he said.

People leaving the Norway were not informed about what was happening, Hunt said, and were shoehorned into a customs hall in the Port of Miami that was not designed to accommodate so many people.

The Coast Guard and Miami-Dade authorities said late Sunday that four deaths had been confirmed. Fifteen of the crew members injured with burns were brought to Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital, where eight were listed in critical condition.

The conditions of the five other Norway employees who were reported as injured in the explosion and fire were not known.

The ship had been scheduled to sail out of Miami later in the day with a new load of passengers, but that cruise was canceled so the ship, built in 1961, could be examined for structural damage. Officials of Norwegian Cruise Lines said the nearly 2,000 passengers booked for the Sunday sailing would be given refunds and vouchers for another cruise.

On Memorial Day weekend two years ago, Coast Guard inspectors going over the 1,035-foot vessel found scores of repair patches that had been made to the Norway's sprinkler system that could fail in high heat. The ship was made to stay in Miami for two weeks until the sprinkler system could be made more reliable.

The Norway customarily sails from Miami on Sundays on seven-day excursions through the eastern Caribbean. Coast Guard officials said marine safety officers were checking the Norway on Sunday to determine how much damage the explosion and fire caused.

By evening, officials of the National Transportation Safety Board were on the scene and had taken charge of the investigation.

Associated Press contributed to this report. Dahlburg reported from St. Augustine, Fla., Virtue from Miami.

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