Passengers were ready to abandon ship
Victoria - The Costa Allegra's captain said on Thursday passengers had put on life vests and were ready to abandon ship as his crew fought a fire in the engine room that left the vessel adrift and powerless.
One passenger said he and his terrified wife had contemplated jumping into the sea as the ship, with more than 1 000 passengers and crew on board, stalled in an area of the Indian Ocean where Somali pirates prey on merchant shipping.
"We thought the worst had happened. I couldn't believe it, after what happened to the other cruise ship. I could just picture having to jump for it into the water - my wife was terrified," Chris told reporters as angry and exhausted passengers disembarked in the Seychelles.
"Guests were prepared to disembark, they put on life vests and were taken to lifeboats," the captain, Niccolo Alba, told a press conference after docking in Victoria.
"Obviously all the passengers were assembled at the muster stations to prepare to board the lifeboats," after the fire broke out in the engine room on Monday, he said.
"The emergency situation lasted for three hours to make sure the fire was completely out."
The ship drifted for several hours before being taken into tow by a French tuna fishing trawler, and limped into Victoria port on Thursday after a three-day ordeal for the more than 1 000 people on board.
Frightened passengers spent most of the time crowded on the Costa Allegra's decks fighting sweltering temperatures since the fire had knocked out the ship's power generation, leaving it without lighting, electric toilets and air-conditioning.
"The fear was that we would have to abandon ship with all these children and elderly people in the middle of the Indian Ocean, far from Reunion, the Seychelles and Mauritius," said the ship's Italian chaplain, Father Camillo Testa.
"The worst moment was when I heard the coded alarm. I was in the cabin. The emergency procedure was implemented immediately. We went to the assigned deck," he told Italy's Sky TG24 news channel.
"Not being able to go back into the cabins sparked a bit of panic on board."
Norbert Stiekema, executive vice-president of owners Costa Crociere, which also operated the doomed Costa Concordia which ran aground last month off Italy with the loss of 32 lives, was on the dock to welcome the passengers as they came down the gangway.
"This has a risk of damaging our brand. These incidents don't often happen but there's a law of probability," Stiekama said.
He said his company would reimburse passengers the cost of their ticket and double it, as well as refund any money spent on board.
The captain, who insisted he had followed "all the international rules on emergencies," said a diesel-powered generator designed to take over power generation in an emergency had worked for only a few hours before breaking down.
"Unfortunately after four hours the emergency diesel generator broke down and we couldn't get it to work again. An inquiry is under way."
Medical teams and ambulances were on standby as tired passengers stepped onto the dock.
Italian investigators were also dockside waiting to question the crew of the ship, a converted container vessel.
Nine people are under investigation for the January 13 Costa Concordia disaster, including three Costa Crociere executives, the ship's captain and five other crew members.
"It's been a rough ride, we had to sleep on deck because there was no air conditioning and the cabins stank, because we couldn't flush the toilets," said Alena Daem, a 62-year-old passenger from Belgium.
"There was food, but nothing that had to be cooked - we ate a lot of bread. I'm exhausted and pretty glad the whole thing is over," Daem added.
Helicopters have been delivering fresh food to the ship over the last few days.
"It was absolutely atrocious," said Henri, an 82-year old Frenchman, his voice breaking with emotion, as he arrived on the chaotic dock, crowded with passengers, piles of luggage, officials and journalists.
"No lights, no toilets, I could hardly sleep up there on deck with so many people all crushed together... The first day was fine but it got steadily worse, it was awful."
Passengers appeared tired and disorientated as they arrived on land, although some in apparently better spirits had waved and cheered from the ship's decks as they arrived. Long lines of buses waited to swish them off to hotels, from where around half the passengers have chosen to fly home.
The cruise company said the other half had opted to take the rest of their holiday in the Seychelles, an Indian Ocean idyll famous for its palm-fringed beaches.
Red Cross worker Sandra Sabury said teams were offering "water and psychological support because the passengers have been in a very stressful condition".
Seychelles Foreign Minister Jean-Paul Adam welcomed passengers as they disembarked.
"They've had a tough experience on board that ship, but hopefully they'll feel a lot better once... we look after them," Adam said.
Coastguard vessels and naval aircraft from both the Seychelles and India kept watch on its slow journey to port, amid fears of a possible attack from Somali pirates who prey on vessels in the region.
The ship had left Madagascar last weekend and was on its way to Seychelles when the fire broke out. After the Seychelles, the liner had been due to travel through the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.