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Five Sailors Killed In Cruise Ship Fire

Fire broke out Saturday aboard a cruise ship in Alaska’s Inside Passage, killing five crew members and injuring 70 people, the Coast Guard said.

The fire apparently began in the laundry room aboard the Universe Explorer and was reported at 3:11 a.m., said Coast Guard Lt. John Fitzgerald. The 617-foot ship was about two hours from Juneau at the time, near Admiralty Island west of the capital city, he said.

The five crew members had berths near the laundry room, fire chief Charles Lundfelt said. Their names were not immediately available.

It was tough trying to battle the blaze in a confined area, Lundfelt said at a news conference.

“It’s like fighting a basement fire,’ he said. “Normally with a house fire, you can vent the heat or the smoke out an open window or cut a hole in the roof.”

Fitzgerald said the fire was extinguished with help from a Coast Guard team placed aboard the ship, but re-ignited shortly after 8 a.m. That flare-up was put out about an hour later, he said.

The ship was never in any danger of sinking, Fitzgerald said. The fire’s cause was not immediately known.

There were no visible signs of a fire from outside the ship, though some rescue workers carried singed life buoys off the vessel.

The Coast Guard dispatched two cutters, a utility boat and a helicopter to aid the ship.

The ship arrived at Auke Bay, a harbor about 10 miles north of Juneau, shortly after 9 a.m. All of the 70 passengers and crew reported injured were taken to a hospital. Most suffered from smoke inhalation and anxiety, and one reported heart attack symptoms, authorities said.

The ship, owned by Commodore Cruise Lines, had 730 passengers and 280 crew members, Fitzgerald said. It had left Vancouver, British Columbia, on Tuesday for a weeklong cruise.

The ship is fully operational, but “for the safety and comfort of the passengers, we just decided to terminate the cruise and fly everybody home,” said Dennis Myrick, vice president of World Explorer Cruises Inc., the San Francisco-based company that leased the vessel.

Passengers would be compensated for the rest of the trip, Myrick said.

The ship will return to Vancouver once the passengers are removed and should be ready to begin another weeklong cruise next Tuesday, Myrick said.

The Universe Explorer was built in 1953 as a cargo vessel. A few years later it was outfitted as a passenger ship. In 1971, Hong Kong shipping tycoon C.Y. Tung bought the vessel and in 1977 the ship started summer cruises to Alaska.

Saturday’s cruise ship fire was the third on Inside Passage waters during the past year.

A fire started in the engine room of the 950-passenger Regent Star, owned by Regency Cruises of New York, on July 22, 1995. Seven passengers suffered minor injuries.

More recently, the 685-foot Golden Princess was towed to Victoria, British Columbia, on July 6 after going dead in the water off the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula. No one was hurt.

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