Alarm, lifevests and lifeboats: Costa Allegra docks
By Jason Straziuso
The worst moments for Gordon and Eleanor Bradwell on their disabled cruise ship came immediately after the wail of the general alarm. Eleanor quickly left lunch to get a life vest in the couple's cabin. Gordon was pushed in another direction. The scent of smoke grew stronger. Then the lifeboats dropped.
Some passengers panicked, shouting out family members' names. The Bradwells - an Athens, Georgia couple who celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last June - feared they wouldn't find one another.
"Those were the worst moments," said Gordon Bradwell, a former alumni director at the University of Georgia.
The Costa Allegra docked in the Seychelles on Thursday nearly three full 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 pirates are known to prowl.
Cabin temperatures were 100 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, Gordon estimated, forcing passengers to sleep on deck chairs.
"Things became very primitive," he said, despite the fact the couple had paid US$8,000 for the multi-week cruise.
The fire came only six weeks after the Costa Concordia capsized off Italy, killing 25 people and leaving seven missing, a fact that was on many passengers' minds.
After the generator fire on the Allegra flared around 1:00pm on Monday (local time), Capt. Niccolo Alba sounded the general alarm. Passengers knew it wasn't a drill. They had already carried one out. The short-short-long wail of the general alarm tells guests to prepare for disembarkation.
Passengers couldn't see the fire, but they could smell and see smoke. Crew members extinguished the blaze within an hour, but the alarm was kept in place two hours more. Eleanor said the crew's response was disorganised. Gordon said chaos reigned for three or four hours. It was two hours before the Bradwells were reunited.
Alba said at a news conference Thursday that the emergency process was, broadly speaking, smooth.
The average age of the more than 600 passengers on board was 55, said Guillaume Albert, head of Creole Travel Service. Many of the older passengers in particular had trouble with the high heat.
Back in Georgia, Karen Bradwell Cobb received two calls from Costa on Monday to update her on the ship's situation.
"Initially when I got the call it was very stressful and I teared up," said Cobb. "But you know because my parents are such seasoned travellers I felt like they would be OK. The main concern with 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 Norbert Stiekema, the vice president of Costa, 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 travelling on board.
Cobb said Costa called her with an update again on Tuesday. On Thursday, at around 2:00am Georgia time, she received a fourth call.
"Hey!" her father joyfully shouted into an Associated Press reporter's phone. "We wanted to let yo know that everything is OK."
After the general alarm was called off Monday, life settled down on the Allegra. But there was more bad news. An emergency generator that sits in a different location from the generator room failed, leaving the ship with only six hours of battery power.
The good cruise life was over. Hot meals were finished. Only cold sandwiches were served. The water used to extinguish the fire flooded the galley between the first and second decks. The toilets couldn't be flushed and they quickly filled, blanketing the bathrooms in stench.
Cawan Finn, using a Britishism, summed up the bathroom situation.
"I haven't had a whoopsie for about four days now," said the 65-year-old.
Finn said it could have been worse. "We were just drifting ... what if there had been a major storm?"
Thomas Faller, a 66-year-old doctor from Vienna Austria, said that Tuesday and Wednesday brought little drama.
"It was just boring," he said, though he noted some people panicked during the initial alarm. "After that it was just boring."
"The first moment I didn't believe it," Faller said of the initial alarm. "I just started my lunch and I thought it wasn't real."
Three Italian investigators are in the Seychelles to probe the reason behind the fire. Company officials have said there is no reason to suspect foul play.
Costa's vice president Stiekema said the company made the passengers an "extremely fair" compensation offer: A refund of the price of all associated flights, the cost of the cruise, any spending on board, and the company offered the choice of a free one- or two-week vacation in the Seychelles or a free flight home.
After the Concordia's accident, the company saw bookings fall by 35 percent. They had just started to rise, though may now take another hit. The Bradwells, for instance, said they look forward to their next cruise - but that it won't be with Costa.
Stiekema said there was both negatives and positives to the latest accident.
"The negative is that incidents on ships can happen," he said. "It will happen every 100 years, every 50 years. I think knowing that the Costa Crociere tries to be ready for these kinds of events and in this case we have shown our past guests as well as our future guests that in an incident like this which was very far from the coast we are capable of managing a crisis in a very effective way."
The Allegra left northern Madagascar, off Africa's southeast coast, on Saturday. The liner was carrying 413 crew members and 627 passengers, including 212 Italians, 31 Britons and eight Americans.
The Seychelles is a chain of white-sand resort islands with a population of just 87,000. About 375 people are taking advantage of the company's offer of a free vacation here.
"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 AP on Wednesday that 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 said, despite a few testy moments - "which you would expect because life was difficult". Gordon 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," said Gordon. "If the fire had gotten out of control it could have been a disaster of Biblical proportions."