A fire raged through a cruise ship early Saturday as it sailed off Cyprus, sending more than 650 passengers and crew fleeing in lifeboats and helicopters.
The MS Romantica, a 10,500-ton Cypriot vessel, was carrying European tourists on a Mediterranean cruise to Port Said, Egypt.
“The boat burned like hell. We were lucky to get out alive, but I’ve lost everything,” said the ship’s photographer, a Briton who gave only the name Chris.
The Cypriot ship Princessa Victoria reached the area, 65 miles off Cyprus, half an hour after picking up a distress signal and found passengers - many still in pajamas - already in lifeboats.
Helicopters from a British base in Cyprus winched the last passengers and the captain from the deck of the blazing vessel. All the evacuees - 482 passengers and 182 crew members - were taken aboard the Victoria.
Helicopter commander Jonathan Dixon said as his two craft approached the ship, they saw the passengers were clambering into the lifeboats.
“Many were already at sea heading for the Victoria. Smoke was coming from the Romantica’s bridge and the surrounding area,” he said.
Victoria captain Yannis Papapdopoulos said the rescue was orderly. “There was no panic at all and no injuries, not even a scratch.”
The ship, owned by the Cypriot company Paradise Tours, had been on a three-day cruise to Egypt and Israel. The passengers were from Europe, including 223 Russians and 120 Britons.
Savvas Stylianou, a Cypriot who disembarked here along with the other evacuees, said “thick smoke” in his cabin woke him up.
But his lifeboat had a leak. “I took a vest from one of the women passengers and bunged it shut,” he said.
Most passengers left all their luggage on the burning ship. Many no longer had passports.
Initial reports said the fire started in the engine room, but the cause was still unknown.
Cyprus television showed the ship was still blazing Saturday afternoon with thick smoke billowing from its middle section. Tugs sprayed jets of water on to the ship, which listed slightly in the calm sea.