, VICTORIA, Mar 1 – Emergency medical teams were on standby on Thursday as an Italian liner with over 1,000 passengers and crew limped towards port in the Seychelles, three days after a fire disabled it in pirate-infested waters.
Passengers have spent most of the time crowded on the Costa Allegra’s decks fighting sweltering temperatures since an engine fire knocked out power on Monday, cutting electricity, air conditioning and shutting bathrooms.
“We’re here to provide water and psychological support because the passengers have been in a very stressful condition in the dark,” said Red Cross worker Sandra Sabury, with the ship sighted off the coast and approaching the port.
“The weakest passengers will be disembarked first, there will be ambulances standing by, but we were prepared to airlift anyone who needed urgent medical attention,” said Seychelles presidential spokeswoman, Nada Francourt.
Italian investigators also awaited the arrival in the capital Victoria of the liner, a converted container ship which belongs to the same fleet as the doomed Costa Concordia that smashed into rocks off Tuscany last month.
The fire broke out near the ship’s generators in the engine room as the Costa Allegra was making its way from Madagascar, which it departed on Saturday, to the Seychelles, where it had been due to arrive on Tuesday.
Emergency crews on board extinguished the fire after a few hours and no-one was injured, but the liner was left powerless and adrift.
A French tuna fishing boat, the Trevignon, responded to the Costa Allegra’s mayday call and was towing the boat solo, crawling along at a speed of around six knots (11 kilometres or seven miles an hour) through calm seas.
Conditions have been “difficult,” the French captain of the Trevignon Alain Derveute told the Italian news channel TGCOM24, describing the heat as “suffocating.”
Emergency supplies and electric torches were airlifted by helicopter onto the boat, and with washing facilities closed, the liner’s operating company Costa Crociere provided mineral water “for personal hygiene needs.”
Coast guard vessels and naval aircraft from both the Seychelles and India patrolled nearby during its slow journey to port to ensure pirates from lawless Somalia could not attack.
The Costa Allegra is owned by the same company as the much larger Costa Concordia, which ran aground off the Italian island of Giglio and keeled over last month with 4,229 people on board in an accident that claimed 32 lives.
Nine people are under investigation for the disaster, including three Costa Crociere executives, the ship’s captain and five other crew members.
Seychelles authorities have prepared hundreds of hotel rooms on the idyllic Indian Ocean island and secured seats on aircraft to fly the Costa Allegra’s 1,000 passengers and crew back home.
Over half the passengers have opted to enjoy their holiday in the Seychelles in “high quality hotels” at Costa Crociere expense, the company said in a statement.
“Up to now, 376 guests out of 627 agreed on the Costa Cruises’ proposal to continue their vacation in Seychelles,” the statement late Wednesday read, adding that the remaining 251 passengers would fly home Thursday evening.
Immigration officials have already been airlifted onto the boat to complete arrival paperwork, allowing passengers to disembark swiftly as soon as the boat docks into port, said Seychelles tourism board director Alain St. Ange.
“No-one on board is sick, but the passengers and crew have obviously been under a lot of stress, living in difficult conditions,” St. Ange said, adding passengers would be welcomed onto the island, currently hosting a carnival.
“It’s going to be difficult to cope with the extra number of people here because lots of people have decided to stay on for a holiday, but they can relax and enjoy the carnival — and paradise on earth.”
Costa Crociere said there were 627 passengers and 413 crew from 25 countries on board the Allegra, including nine Italian Marines hired to guard against possible pirate attacks. It said everyone was in good health.
Most of the passengers are Italian, French, Austrian and Swiss.
After the Seychelles, an archipelago of more than 115 islands, the Costa Allegra had been due to travel along the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.